A tissue stem cell should exhibit long-term self-renewal, clonogenicity and a capacity to differentiate into the tissue of origin. Such a postnatal renal stem cell has not been formally identified. The metanephric mesenchyme (MM) of the developing kidney gives rise to both the renal interstitium and the nephrons and is regarded as the progenitor population of the developing kidney. However, isolated MM does not self renew and requires immortalization for survival in culture. Here we report the isolation and sustained culture of long-term repopulating, clonal progenitors from the embryonic kidney as free floating nephrospheres. Such cells displayed clonal self renewal for in excess of twenty passages when cultured with bFGF and thrombin, showed broad mesodermal multipotentiality, but retained expression of key renal transcription factors (Wt1, Sall1, Eya1, Six1, Six2, Osr1 and Hoxa11). While these cells did display limited capacity to contribute to developing embryonic kidney explants, nephrospheres did not display in vitro renal epithelial capacity. Nephrospheres could be cultured from both Sall1(+) and Sall1(-) fractions of embryonic kidney, suggesting that they were derived from the MM as a whole and not specifically the MM-derived cap mesenchyme committed to nephron formation. This embryonic renal stem cell population was not able to be isolated from postnatal kidney confirming that while the embryonic MM represents a mulitpotent stem cell population, this does not persist after birth.
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