J Anat 2010 Dec 14;217(6):651-64. Epub 2010 Sep 14.
Neural Development Unit, UCL Institute of Child Health, London, UK.
Within the embryonic lung, intrinsic nerve ganglia, which innervate airway smooth muscle, are required for normal lung development and function. We studied the development of neural crest-derived intrinsic neurons within the embryonic mouse lung by crossing Wnt1-Cre mice with R26R-EYFP reporter mice to generate double transgenic mice that express yellow fluorescent protein (YFP) in all neural crest cells (NCCs) and their derivatives. In addition to utilizing conventional immunohistochemistry on frozen lung sections, the complex organization of lung innervation was visualized in three dimensions by combining the genetic labelling of NCCs with optical projection tomography, a novel imaging technique that is particularly useful for the 3D examination of developing organs within embryos. YFP-positive NCCs migrated into the mouse lung from the oesophagus region at embryonic day 10.5. These cells subsequently accumulated around the bronchi and epithelial tubules of the lung and, as shown by 3D lung reconstructions with optical projection tomography imaging, formed an extensive, branching network in association with the developing airways. YFP-positive cells also colonized lung maintained in organotypic culture, and responded in a chemoattractive manner to the proto-oncogene, rearranged during transfection (RET) ligand, glial-cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), suggesting that the RET signalling pathway is involved in neuronal development within the lung. However, when the lungs of Ret(-/-) and Gfrα1(-/-) embryos, deficient in the RET receptor and GDNF family receptor α 1 (GFRα1) co-receptor respectively, were examined, no major differences in the extent of lung innervation were observed. Our findings demonstrate that intrinsic neurons of the mouse lung are derived from NCCs and that, although implicated in the development of these cells, the role of the RET signalling pathway requires further investigation.