Assessing the molecular control of development and cell fate in individual cells in the intact mammary epithelium has not been possible to date. By exploiting an intraductal retrovirus (RCAS)-mediated gene delivery method to introduce a marker gene, we found that ductal epithelial cells are turned over with a half time of approximately 1month in adult virgin mice. However, following RCAS-mediated introduction of a constitutively activated STAT5a (caSTAT5a), caSTAT5a-activated ductal epithelial cells expand and replace other cells in the epithelium, eventually forming a mammary gland resembling that in a late pregnant mouse, suggesting that STAT5a activation alone is sufficient to mediate pregnancy-induced mammary cell expansion, alveolar cell fate commitment, and lactogenesis. Furthermore, such caSTAT5a-induced alveolar differentiation does not require ovarian functions, although caSTAT5a-induced cell proliferation is partly reduced in ovariectomized mice. In conclusion, in this first report of studying the developmental role of a gene in a few cells in a normally developed virgin mammary ductal tree, STAT5a activation causes alveolar fate commitment and lactogenesis, and with the help of ovarian hormones, drives alveolar expansion.
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