Planarians grow and regenerate organs by coordinating proliferation and differentiation of pluripotent stem cells with remodeling of postmitotic tissues. Understanding how these processes are orchestrated requires characterizing cell-type-specific gene expression programs and their regulation during regeneration and homeostasis. To this end, we analyzed the expression profile of planarian intestinal phagocytes, cells responsible for digestion and nutrient storage/distribution. Utilizing RNA interference, we identified cytoskeletal regulators required for intestinal branching morphogenesis and a modulator of bioactive sphingolipid metabolism, ceramide synthase, required for the production of functional phagocytes. Additionally, we found that a gut-enriched homeobox transcription factor, nkx-2.2, is required for somatic stem cell proliferation, suggesting a niche-like role for phagocytes. Identification of evolutionarily conserved regulators of intestinal branching, differentiation, and stem cell dynamics demonstrates the utility of the planarian digestive system as a model for elucidating the mechanisms controlling postembryonic organogenesis.
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