In rodents, the intestinal tract progressively acquires a functional regionalization during postnatal development. Using lactase-phlorizin hydrolase as a marker, we have analyzed in a xenograft model the ontogenic potencies of fetal rat intestinal segments taken prior to endoderm cytodifferentiation. Segments from the presumptive proximal jejunum and distal ileum grafted in nude mice developed correct spatial and temporal patterns of lactase protein and mRNA expression, which reproduced the normal pre- and post-weaning conditions. Segments from the fetal colon showed a faint lactase immunostaining 8-10 d after transplantation in chick embryos but not in mice; it is consistent with the transient expression of this enzyme in the colon of rat neonates. Heterotopic cross-associations comprising endoderm and mesenchyme from the presumptive proximal jejunum and distal ileum developed as xenografts in nude mice, and they exhibited lactase mRNA and protein expression patterns that were typical of the origin of the endodermal moiety. Endoderm from the distal ileum also expressed a normal lactase pattern when it was associated to fetal skin fibroblasts, while the fibroblasts differentiated into muscle layers containing alpha-smooth-muscle actin. Noteworthy, associations comprising colon endoderm and small intestinal mesenchyme showed a typical small intestinal morphology and expressed the digestive enzyme sucrase-isomaltase normally absent in the colon. However, in heterologous associations comprising lung or stomach endoderm and small intestinal mesenchyme, the epithelial compartment expressed markers in accordance to their tissue of origin but neither intestinal lactase nor sucrase-isomaltase. A thick intestinal muscle coat in which cells expressed alpha-smooth-muscle actin surrounded the grafts. The results demonstrate that: (a) the temporal and positional information needed for intestinal ontogeny up to the post-weaning stage results from an intrinsic program that is fixed in mammalian fetuses prior to endoderm cytodifferentiation; (b) this temporal and positional information is primarily carried by the endodermal moiety which is also able to change the fate of heterologous mesodermal cells to form intestinal mesenchyme; and (c) the small intestinal mesenchyme in turn may deliver instructive information as shown in association with colonic endoderm; yet this effect is not obvious with nonintestinal endoderms.

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