In the trachea and bronchi of the mouse, airway smooth muscle (SM) and cartilage are localized to complementary domains surrounding the airway epithelium. Proper juxtaposition of these tissues ensures a balance of elasticity and rigidity that is critical for effective air passage. It is unknown how this tissue complementation is established during development. Here we dissect the developmental relationship between these tissues by genetically disrupting SM formation (through Srf inactivation) or cartilage formation (through Sox9 inactivation) and assessing the impact on the remaining lineage. We found that, in the trachea and main bronchi, loss of SM or cartilage resulted in an increase in cell number of the remaining lineage, namely the cartilage or SM, respectively. However, only in the main bronchi, but not in the trachea, did the loss of SM or cartilage lead to a circumferential expansion of the remaining cartilage or SM domain, respectively. In addition to SM defects, cartilage-deficient tracheas displayed epithelial phenotypes, including decreased basal cell number, precocious club cell differentiation, and increased secretoglobin expression. These findings together delineate the mechanisms through which a cell-autonomous disruption of one structural tissue can have widespread consequences on upper airway function.
Keywords: airway development; tracheomalacia.