Cell Lineage Specification during Mouse Embryonic Gonad Development
The mouse embryonic gonad provides an outstanding model to study the complex mechanisms involved in cell fate specification and maintenance. At the bipotential stage, both XX and XY gonads are capable of becoming testes or ovaries upon specific molecular cues. The specification of the supporting cell lineage (as either Sertoli cells in the male or granulosa cells in the female) initiates the testis or ovary program, leading to male or female fate. However, there are significant gaps in our understanding of how the somatic cells in the gonad arise, are competent to differentiate, and determine and maintain their fates. In this dissertation, we addressed these questions.
We found that NUMB (an antagonist of Notch signaling) serves as competence factor for somatic cell differentiation during early gonadogenesis. The asymmetric allocation of NUMB to the basolateral domain of actively dividing coelomic epithelial (CE) cells is indispensable to (1) maintain the totipotent stem cell-like reservoir at the CE domain, and (2) give rise to progenitor cells that can further differentiate into supporting and interstitial cell lineages. Deletion of Numb; Numbl resulted in disruption of cell polarity in the CE domain as well as a reduction of multiple differentiated cell lineages within XX and XY gonads, including supporting cells and male steroidogenic cells, which were most severely affected. We detected elevated Notch downstream signaling in the Numb; Numbl mutant gonads. Moreover, treatment of DAPT (which blocks Notch signaling) rescued the Numb; Numbl mutant phenotypes, strongly suggesting that upregulation of Notch is responsible.
Previous experiments indicate that when supporting cells commit to the male (Sertoli) fate, they must repress the alternative female (granulosa) cell fate. In another line of experiments, we investigated the hypothesis that the Polycomb repressive complex (PRC1) plays a critical role in repressing the female pathway during male gonad patterning. We found that loss of Ring1B (a component of PRC1) led to the disruption of XY gonad development specific to the posterior region of male gonads. Sry, the upstream driver of the male pathway, was not appropriately expressed in the posterior domain, which contained cells expressing female markers and, in some cases, small aggregates of undifferentiated cells. Using ChIP-Seq, we identified potential targets of PRC during male gonad development. Moreover, a key gene in the male pathway, SOX9, interacts with Ring1B, based on immunoprecipitation results, leading to the hypothesis that it may be involved in the recruitment of PRC to its target sites to execute the repression of female genes in male gonads.
Our findings provide insight into how somatic cell fate is determined and maintained during mammalian sex determination. Our results may be valuable for patients with disorders of sexual development with unidentified genetic contributions.
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