We studied the expression of the N-myc proto-oncogene and the insulin-like growth factor-II (IGF-II) gene in human fetuses of 16-19 gestational wk. Both genes have specific roles in the growth and differentiation of embryonic tissues, such as the kidney and neural tissue. Since continued expression of N-myc and IGF-II mRNAs is also a characteristic feature of Wilms' tumor, a childhood neoplasm of probable fetal kidney origin, we were particularly interested in the possibility that their expression might be linked or coordinately regulated in the developing kidney. Expression of N-myc mRNA was observed in the brain and in the kidney by Northern hybridization analysis. In in situ hybridization of the kidney, N-myc autoradiographic grains were primarily located over epithelially differentiating mesenchyme while most of the mesenchymal stromal cells showed only a background signal with the N-myc probe. N-myc mRNA was detectable throughout the developing brain with a slight accentuation in the intermediate zone cells in between the subependymal and cortical layers. Thus, even postmitotic neuroepithelial cells of the fetal cerebrum expressed N-myc mRNA. In Northern hybridization, IGF-II mRNA signal was abundant in the kidney but much weaker, though definite, in the brain. The regional distribution of IGF-II mRNA in the kidney was largely complementary to that of N-myc. IGF-II autoradiographic grains were located predominantly over the stromal and blastemal cells with a relative lack of hybridization over the epithelial structures. In the brain, IGF-II mRNA was about two- to threefold more abundant in the subependymal and intermediate layers than in the cortical plate and ependymal zone, respectively. The fetal expression patterns of the N-myc and IGF-II mRNAs are reflected by the types of tumors known to express the corresponding genes during postnatal life such as Wilms' tumor. However, the apparent coexpression of the IGF-II and N-myc genes in immature kidneys occurs largely in distinct cell types.

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