In situ dividing and phagocytosing retinal microglia express nestin, vimentin, and NG2 in vivo

PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e22408. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022408. Epub 2011 Aug 5.


Background: Following injury, microglia become activated with subsets expressing nestin as well as other neural markers. Moreover, cerebral microglia can give rise to neurons in vitro. In a previous study, we analysed the proliferation potential and nestin re-expression of retinal macroglial cells such as astrocytes and Müller cells after optic nerve (ON) lesion. However, we were unable to identify the majority of proliferative nestin(+) cells. Thus, the present study evaluates expression of nestin and other neural markers in quiescent and proliferating microglia in naïve retina and following ON transection in adult rats in vivo.

Methodology/principal findings: For analysis of cell proliferation and cells fates, rats received BrdU injections. Microglia in retinal sections or isolated cells were characterized using immunofluorescence labeling with markers for microglia (e.g., Iba1, CD11b), cell proliferation, and neural cells (e.g., nestin, vimentin, NG2, GFAP, Doublecortin etc.). Cellular analyses were performed using confocal laser scanning microscopy. In the naïve adult rat retina, about 60% of resting ramified microglia expressed nestin. After ON transection, numbers of nestin(+) microglia peaked to a maximum at 7 days, primarily due to in situ cell proliferation of exclusively nestin(+) microglia. After 8 weeks, microglia numbers re-attained control levels, but 20% were still BrdU(+) and nestin(+), although no further local cell proliferation occurred. In addition, nestin(+) microglia co-expressed vimentin and NG2, but not GFAP or neuronal markers. Fourteen days after injury and following retrograde labeling of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) with Fluorogold (FG), nestin(+)NG2(+) microglia were positive for the dye indicating an active involvement of a proliferating cell population in phagocytosing apoptotic retinal neurons.

Conclusions/significance: The current study provides evidence that in adult rat retina, a specific resident population of microglia expresses proteins of immature neural cells that are involved in injury-induced cell proliferation and phagocytosis while transdifferentiation was not observed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens / metabolism*
  • Bromodeoxyuridine
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Doublecortin Protein
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / metabolism*
  • Microglia / cytology*
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / metabolism*
  • Nestin
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Proteoglycans / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Retina / cytology*
  • Vimentin / metabolism*


  • Antigens
  • Dcx protein, rat
  • Doublecortin Protein
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Nes protein, rat
  • Nestin
  • Proteoglycans
  • Vimentin
  • chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan 4
  • Bromodeoxyuridine