Anisotropic expansion of hepatocyte lumina enforced by apical bulkheads

J Cell Biol. 2021 Oct 4;220(10):e202103003. doi: 10.1083/jcb.202103003. Epub 2021 Jul 30.


Lumen morphogenesis results from the interplay between molecular pathways and mechanical forces. In several organs, epithelial cells share their apical surfaces to form a tubular lumen. In the liver, however, hepatocytes share the apical surface only between adjacent cells and form narrow lumina that grow anisotropically, generating a 3D network of bile canaliculi (BC). Here, by studying lumenogenesis in differentiating mouse hepatoblasts in vitro, we discovered that adjacent hepatocytes assemble a pattern of specific extensions of the apical membrane traversing the lumen and ensuring its anisotropic expansion. These previously unrecognized structures form a pattern, reminiscent of the bulkheads of boats, also present in the developing and adult liver. Silencing of Rab35 resulted in loss of apical bulkheads and lumen anisotropy, leading to cyst formation. Strikingly, we could reengineer hepatocyte polarity in embryonic liver tissue, converting BC into epithelial tubes. Our results suggest that apical bulkheads are cell-intrinsic anisotropic mechanical elements that determine the elongation of BC during liver tissue morphogenesis.