From neural crest to bowel: development of the enteric nervous system

J Neurobiol. 1993 Feb;24(2):199-214. doi: 10.1002/neu.480240207.


The ENS resembles the brain and differs both physiologically and structurally from any other region of the PNS. Recent experiments in which crest cell migration has been studied with DiI, a replication-deficient retrovirus, or antibodies that label cells of neural crest origin, have confirmed that both the avian and mammalian bowel are colonized by émigrés from the sacral as well as the vagal level of the neural crest. Components of the extracellular matrix, such as laminin, may play roles in enteric neural and glial development. The observation that an overabundance of laminin develops in the presumptive aganglionic region of the gut in ls/ls mutant mice and is associated with the inability of crest-derived cells to colonize this region of the bowel has led to the hypothesis that laminin promotes the development of crest-derived cells as enteric neurons. Premature expression of a neuronal phenotype would cause crest-derived cells to cease migrating before they complete the colonization of the gut. The acquisition by crest-derived cells of a nonintegrin, nerve-specific, 110 kD laminin-binding protein when they enter the bowel may enable these cells to respond to laminin differently from their pre-enteric migrating predecessors. Crest-derived cells migrating along the vagal pathway to the mammalian gut are transiently catecholaminergic (TC). This phenotype appears to be lost rapidly as the cells enter the bowel and begin to follow their program of terminal differentiation. The appearance and disappearance of TC cells may thus be an example of the effects of the enteric microenvironment on the differentiation of crest-derived cells in situ. Crest-derived cells can be isolated from the enteric microenvironment by immunoselection, a method that takes advantage of the selective expression on the surfaces of crest-derived cells of certain antigens. One neurotrophin, NT-3, promotes the development of enteric neurons and glia in vitro. Because trkC is expressed in the developing and mature gut, it seems likely that NT-3 plays a critical role in the development of the ENS in situ. Although the factors that are responsible for the development of the unique properties of the ENS remain unknown, progress made in understanding enteric neuronal development has recently accelerated. The application of new techniques and recently developed probes suggest that the accelerated pace of discovery in this area can be expected to continue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Movement
  • Digestive System / embryology
  • Digestive System / innervation*
  • Mice
  • Nerve Growth Factors / pharmacology
  • Nerve Growth Factors / physiology
  • Neural Crest / cytology
  • Neural Crest / physiology*
  • Neuroglia / cytology
  • Neuroglia / drug effects
  • Neuroglia / physiology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Peripheral Nerves / embryology
  • Phenotype
  • Rats


  • Nerve Growth Factors