Notch 1, Notch 2, and Notch 3 are three highly conserved mammalian homologues of the Drosophila Notch gene, which encodes a transmembrane protein important for various cell fate decisions during development. Little is yet known about regulation of mammalian Notch gene expression, and this issue has been addressed in the developing rodent tooth during normal morphogenesis and after experimental manipulation. Notch 1, 2, and 3 genes show distinct cell-type specific expression patterns. Most notably, Notch expression is absent in epithelial cells in close contact with mesenchyme, which may be important for acquisition of the ameloblast fate. This reveals a previously unknown prepatterning of dental epithelium at early stages, and suggests that mesenchyme negatively regulates Notch expression in epithelium. This hypothesis has been tested in homo- and heterotypic explant experiments in vitro. The data show that Notch expression is downregulated in dental epithelial cells juxtaposed to mesenchyme, indicating that dental epithelium needs a mesenchyme-derived signal in order to maintain the downregulation of Notch. Finally, Notch expression in dental mesenchyme is upregulated in a region surrounding beads soaked in retinoic acid (50-100 micrograms/ml) but not in fibroblast growth factor-2 (100-250 micrograms/ml). The response to retinoic acid was seen in explants of 11-12-d old mouse embryos but not in older embryos. These data suggest that Notch genes may be involved in mediating some of the biological effects of retinoic acid during normal development and after teratogenic exposure.

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