Formation of a nephron depends on reciprocal signaling of different morphogens between epithelial and mesenchymal cells within the renal stem/progenitor cell niche. Previously, it has been surmised that a close proximity exists between both involved cell types and that morphogens are transported between them by diffusion. However, actual morphological data illustrate that mesenchymal and epithelial stem/progenitor cell bodies are separated by a striking interface. Special fixation of specimens by glutaraldehyde (GA) solution including cupromeronic blue, ruthenium red, or tannic acid for electron microscopy depicts that the interface is not void but filled in extended areas by textured extracellular matrix. Surprisingly, projections of mesenchymal cells cross the interface to contact epithelial cells. At those sites the plasma membranes of a mesenchymal and an epithelial cell are connected via tunneling nanotubes. Regarding detected morphological features in combination with involved morphogens, their transport cannot longer be explained solely by diffusion. Instead, it has to be sorted according to biophysical properties of morphogens and to detected environment. Thus, the new working hypothesis is that morphogens with good solubility such as glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) or fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) are transported by diffusion. Morphogens with minor solubility such as bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) are secreted and stored for delivery on demand in illustrated extracellular matrix. In contrast, morphogens with poor solubility such as Wnts are transported in mesenchymal cell projections along the plasma membrane or via illustrated tunneling nanotubes. However, the presence of an intercellular route between mesenchymal and epithelial stem/progenitor cells by tunneling nanotubes also makes it possible that all morphogens are transported this way.
Keywords: cell-to-cell connection; interface; kidney; stem/progenitor cell niche; transport of morphogens; tunneling nanotubes.