We have studied the survival requirements of developing lens epithelial cells to test the hypothesis that most cells are programmed to kill themselves unless they are continuously signaled by other cells not to do so. The lens cells survived for weeks in both explant cultures and high-density dissociated cell cultures in the absence of other cells or added serum or protein, suggesting that they do not require signals from other cell types to survive. When cultured at low density, however, they died by apoptosis, suggesting that they depend on other lens epithelial cells for their survival. Lens epithelial cells cultured at high density in agarose gels also survived for weeks, even though they were not in direct contact with one another, suggesting that they can promote one another's survival in the absence of cell-cell contact. Conditioned medium from high density cultures promoted the survival of cells cultured at low density, suggesting that lens epithelial cells support one another's survival by secreting survival factors. We show for the first time that normal cell death occurs within the anterior epithelium in the mature lens, but this death is strictly confined to the region of the anterior suture.

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