Generating lineage-committed intestinal stem cells from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) could provide a tractable experimental system for understanding intestinal differentiation pathways and may ultimately provide cells for regenerating damaged intestinal tissue. We tested a two-step differentiation procedure in which ESCs were first cultured with activin A to favor formation of definitive endoderm, and then treated with fibroblast-conditioned medium with or without Wnt3A. The definitive endoderm expressed a number of genes associated with gut-tube development through mouse embryonic day 8.5 (Sox17, Foxa2, and Gata4 expressed and Id2 silent). The intestinal stem cell marker Lgr5 gene was also activated in the endodermal cells, whereas the Msi1, Ephb2, and Dcamkl1 intestinal stem cell markers were not. Exposure of the endoderm to fibroblast-conditioned medium with Wnt3A resulted in the activation of Id2, the remaining intestinal stem cell markers and the later gut markers Cdx2, Fabp2, and Muc2. Interestingly, genes associated with distal gut-associated mesoderm (Foxf2, Hlx, and Hoxd8) were also simulated by Wnt3A. The two-step differentiation protocol generated gut bodies with crypt-like structures that included regions of Lgr5-expressing proliferating cells and regions of cell differentiation. These gut bodies also had a smooth muscle component and some underwent peristaltic movement. The ability of the definitive endoderm to differentiate into intestinal epithelium was supported by the vivo engraftment of these cells into mouse colonic mucosa. These findings demonstrate that definitive endoderm derived from ESCs can carry out intestinal cell differentiation pathways and may provide cells to restore damaged intestinal tissue.
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