Morphogenesis of the vertebrate head relies on proper dorsal-ventral (D-V) patterning of neural crest cells (NCC) within the pharyngeal arches. Endothelin-1 (Edn1)-induced signaling through the endothelin-A receptor (Ednra) is crucial for cranial NCC patterning within the mandibular portion of the first pharyngeal arch, from which the lower jaw arises. Deletion of Edn1, Ednra or endothelin-converting enzyme in mice causes perinatal lethality due to severe craniofacial birth defects. These include homeotic transformation of mandibular arch-derived structures into more maxillary-like structures, indicating a loss of NCC identity. All cranial NCCs express Ednra whereas Edn1 expression is limited to the overlying ectoderm, core paraxial mesoderm and pharyngeal pouch endoderm of the mandibular arch as well as more caudal arches. To define the developmental significance of Edn1 from each of these layers, we used Cre/loxP technology to inactivate Edn1 in a tissue-specific manner. We show that deletion of Edn1 in either the mesoderm or endoderm alone does not result in cellular or molecular changes in craniofacial development. However, ectodermal deletion of Edn1 results in craniofacial defects with concomitant changes in the expression of early mandibular arch patterning genes. Importantly, our results also both define for the first time in mice an intermediate mandibular arch domain similar to the one defined in zebrafish and show that this region is most sensitive to loss of Edn1. Together, our results illustrate an integral role for ectoderm-derived Edn1 in early arch morphogenesis, particularly in the intermediate domain.
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