Vertebrate muscles are composed of an array of diverse fast and slow fiber types with different contractile properties. Differences among fibers in fast and slow MyHC expression could be due to extrinsic factors that act on the differentiated myofibers. Alternatively, the mononucleate myoblasts that fuse to form multinucleated muscle fibers could differ intrinsically due to lineage. To distinguish between these possibilities, we determined whether the changes in proportion of slow fibers were attributable to inherent differences in myoblasts. The proportion of fibers expressing slow myosin heavy chain (MyHC) was found to change markedly with time during embryonic and fetal human limb development. During the first trimester, a maximum of 75% of fibers expressed slow MyHC. Thereafter, new fibers formed which did not express this MyHC, so that the proportion of fibers expressing slow MyHC dropped to approximately 3% of the total by midgestation. Several weeks later, a subset of the new fibers began to express slow MyHC and from week 30 of gestation through adulthood, approximately 50% of fibers were slow. However, each myoblast clone (n = 2,119) derived from muscle tissues at six stages of human development (weeks 7, 9, 16, and 22 of gestation, 2 mo after birth and adult) expressed slow MyHC upon differentiation. We conclude from these results that the control of slow MyHC expression in vivo during muscle fiber formation in embryonic development is largely extrinsic to the myoblast. By contrast, human myoblast clones from the same samples differed in their expression of embryonic and neonatal MyHCs, in agreement with studies in other species, and this difference was shown to be stably heritable. Even after 25 population doublings in tissue culture, embryonic stage myoblasts did not give rise to myoblasts capable of expressing MyHCs typical of neonatal stages, indicating that stage-specific differences are not under the control of a division dependent mechanism, or intrinsic "clock." Taken together, these results suggest that, unlike embryonic and neonatal MyHCs, the expression of slow MyHC in vivo at different developmental stages during gestation is not the result of commitment to a distinct myoblast lineage, but is largely determined by the environment.

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