Background: Histological evidence suggests that insulin-producing beta (beta)-cells arise in utero from duct-like structures of the fetal exocrine pancreas, and genetic lineage tracing studies indicate that they are maintained in the adult by self-renewal. These studies have not addressed the origin of the new beta-cells that arise in large numbers shortly after birth, and contradictory lineage tracing results have been published regarding the differentiation potential of duct cells in this period. We established an independent approach to address this question directly.
Results: We generated mice in which duct and acinar cells, comprising the exocrine pancreas, can be genetically marked by virtue of their expressing the mucin gene Muc1. Using these mice, we performed time-specific lineage tracing to determine if these cells undergo endocrine transdifferentiation in vivo. We find that Muc1+ cells do give rise to beta-cells and other islet cells in utero, providing formal proof that mature islets arise from embryonic duct structures. From birth onwards, Muc1 lineage-labeled cells are confined to the exocrine compartment, with no detectable contribution to islet cells.
Conclusions: These results argue against a significant contribution by exocrine transdifferentiation to the normal postnatal expansion and maintenance of beta-cell mass. Exocrine transdifferentiation has been proposed to occur during injury and regeneration, and our experimental model is suited to test this hypothesis in vivo.