Nephron number in the mammalian kidney is known to vary dramatically, with postnatal renal function directly influenced by nephron complement. What determines final nephron number is poorly understood but nephron formation in the mouse kidney ceases within the first few days after birth, presumably due to the loss of all remaining nephron progenitors via epithelial differentiation. What initiates this event is not known. Indeed, whether nephron formation occurs in the same way at this time as during embryonic development has also not been examined. In this study, we investigate the key cellular compartments involved in nephron formation; the ureteric tip, cap mesenchyme and early nephrons; from postnatal day (P) 0 to 6 in the mouse. High resolution analyses of gene and protein expression indicate that loss of nephron progenitors precedes loss of ureteric tip identity, but show spatial shifts in the expression of cap mesenchyme genes during this time. In addition, cap mesenchymal volume and rate of proliferation decline prior to birth. Section-based 3D modeling and Optical Projection Tomography revealed a burst of ectopic nephron induction, with the formation of multiple (up to 5) nephrons per ureteric tip evident from P2. While the distal-proximal patterning of these nephrons occurred normally, their spatial relationship with the ureteric compartment was altered. We propose that this phase of nephron formation represents an acceleration of differentiation within the cap mesenchyme due to a displacement of signals within the nephrogenic niche.
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