We have examined the abundance and cell specificity of several mRNAs that are regulated during the retinoic acid (RA)-induced differentiation of F9 embryonal carcinoma cells to visceral endoderm. The experiments confirmed the multistep nature of this process by demonstrating the expression of the ERA-1/Hox 1.6 message within 6 h after RA addition; the expression of messages specific for the extracellular matrix proteins laminin B1 and B2, and collagen IV(alpha 1) between days 4 and 12; and the expression of two visceral endoderm markers, alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and H19, by days 8-15. In situ hybridization experiments revealed that the collagen IV(alpha 1) mRNA is restricted to the outer cell layer of F9 cell aggregates regardless of the presence or absence of RA. Laminin B1 and B2 mRNAs are concentrated in the outer cell layer of RA-treated aggregates although significant levels of message are also observed within the interior cells of the aggregates. Unexpectedly, AFP mRNA is detectable in only a subset of the outer cells of F9 cell aggregates grown 15 d in the presence of RA. The results obtained from wild-type F9 cells were compared with those from a mutant F9 cell line, RA-5-1, which was previously shown to synthesize collagen IV containing six- to ninefold less 4-hydroxyproline than that in wild-type F9 cells. RA-5-1 cells exhibit four- to sixfold less of the mRNAs encoding two visceral endoderm proteins, AFP and H19, than wild-type F9 cells after RA treatment of RA-5-1 aggregates. RA-5-1 cells, however, do exhibit an RA-associated increase in the level of ERA-1/Hox 1.6 mRNA within 6 h after adding RA. Although the collagen IV protein level is similar in wild-type F9 and RA-5-1 aggregates, the collagen IV(alpha 1) message level is 6-20-fold greater in aggregates of mutant cells than in aggregates of wild-type cells. Moreover, in situ hybridizations showed that this message is evenly distributed throughout the RA-5-1 aggregates rather than restricted to the outer cell layers as it is in wild-type F9 aggregates. These results suggest that abnormal collagen IV expression and localization are associated with decreased expression of the visceral endoderm markers, AFP and H19, in RA-5-1 cell aggregates.

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