In the embryo, epithelia give rise to mesenchyme at specific times and places. Recently, it has been reported (Greenburg, G., and E. D. Hay. 1986. Dev. Biol. 115:363-379; Greenberg, G., and E. D. Hay. 1988. Development (Camb.). 102:605-622) that definitive epithelia can give rise to fibroblast-like cells when suspended within type I collagen gels. We wanted to know whether Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells, an epithelial line, can form mesenchyme under similar conditions. Small explants of MDCK cells on basement membrane were suspended within or placed on top of extracellular matrix gels. MDCK cells on basement membrane gel are tall, columnar in shape, and ultrastructurally resemble epithelia transporting fluid and ions. MDCK explants cultured on type I collagen gel give rise to isolated fusiform-shaped cells that migrate over the gel surface. The fusiform cells extend pseudopodia and filopodia, lose cell membrane specializations, and develop an actin cortex around the entire cell. Unlike true mesenchymal cells, which express vimentin and type I collagen, fusiform cells produce both keratin and vimentin, continue to express laminin, and do not turn on type I collagen. Fusiform cells are not apically-basally polarized, but show mesenchymal cell polarity. Influenza hemagglutinin and virus budding localize to the front end or entire cell surface. Na,K-ATPase occurs intracellularly and also symmetrically distributes on the cell surface. Fodrin becomes diffusely distributed along the plasma membrane, ZO-1 cannot be detected, and desmoplakins distribute randomly in the cytoplasm. The loss of epithelial polarity and acquisition of mesenchymal cell polarity and shape by fusiform MDCK cells on type I collagen gel was previously unsuspected. The phenomenon may offer new opportunities for studying cytoplasmic and nuclear mechanisms regulating cell shape and polarity.

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