Smooth Muscle Differentiation Is Essential for Airway Size, Tracheal Cartilage Segmentation, but Dispensable for Epithelial Branching

Dev Cell. 2020 Apr 6;53(1):73-85.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2020.02.001. Epub 2020 Mar 5.


Airway smooth muscle is best known for its role as an airway constrictor in diseases such as asthma. However, its function in lung development is debated. A prevalent model, supported by in vitro data, posits that airway smooth muscle promotes lung branching through peristalsis and pushing intraluminal fluid to branching tips. Here, we test this model in vivo by inactivating Myocardin, which prevented airway smooth muscle differentiation. We found that Myocardin mutants show normal branching, despite the absence of peristalsis. In contrast, tracheal cartilage, vasculature, and neural innervation patterns were all disrupted. Furthermore, airway diameter is reduced in the mutant, counter to the expectation that the absence of smooth muscle constriction would lead to a more relaxed and thereby wider airway. These findings together demonstrate that during development, while airway smooth muscle is dispensable for epithelial branching, it is integral for building the tracheal architecture and promoting airway growth.

Keywords: Myocd; airway size; branching morphogenesis; cartilage development; development; lung; mouse genetics; peristalsis; smooth muscle cell; trachea.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cartilage / cytology*
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology*
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology*
  • Lung / cytology
  • Morphogenesis / physiology
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscle, Smooth / cytology*
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism
  • Trans-Activators / metabolism


  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Trans-Activators
  • myocardin