Transiently catecholaminergic (TC) cells in the bowel of the fetal rat: Precursors of noncatecholaminergic enteric neurons

G. Baetge, J. E. Pintar, M. D. Gershon

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Experiments were done to study the fate of transient catecholaminergic (TC) cells that develop in the rodent gut during ontogeny. When they are first detected, at Day E11 in rats, TC cells are distributed along the vagal pathway, in advance of the descending fibers of the vagus nerves, and in the foregut. The early TC cells coexpress the immunoreactivities of several neural markers, including 150-kDa neurofilament protein, peripherin, microtubule associated protein (MAP) 5, and growth-associated protein (GAP)-43, with those of the catecholamine biosynthetic enzymes tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and dopamine-β-hydroxylase (DBH). All cells in the fetal rat bowel at Day E11 that express neural markers also express TH immunoreactivity. The primitive TC cells also express the immunoreactivities of neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM), neuropeptide Y (NPY), and nerve growth factor (NGF) receptor (and NGF receptor mRNA). By Day E12 TC cells are found along the vagal pathway and throughout the entire preumbilical bowel. At this age TC cells acquire additional characteristics, including MAP 2 and synaptophysin immunoreactivities and acetylcholinesterase activity, which indicate that they continue to mature as neurons. In addition, TC cells of the rat are immunostained at Day E12 by the NC-1 monoclonal antibody, which in rats labels multiple cell types including migrating cells of neural crest origin. Despite their neural properties, at least some TC cells divide and therefore are neural precursors and not terminally differentiated neurons. At Day E10 TH mRNA-containing cells were not detected by in situ hybridization; however, by Day E11 TH mRNA was detected in sympathetic ganglia and in scattered cells in the mesenchyme of the foregut and vagal pathway. At this age, the number of enteric and vagal cells containing TH mRNA is about 30% less than the number of cells containing TH immunoreactivity in adjacent sections. The ratio of TH mRNA-containing cells to TH-immunoreactive vagal and enteric cells is even less at Day E12, especially in more caudal regions of the preumbilical bowel. A similar decline in the ratio of TH mRNA-containing to TH-immunoreactive cells was not observed in sympathetic ganglia. After Day E12 TH mRNA cannot be detected in enteric or vagal cells by in situ hybridization; nevertheless, TH immunoreactivity continues to be present through Day E14. DBH, NPY, and NGF receptor immunoreactivities are expressed by TH-immunoreactive transitional cells in the fetal rat gut after TH mRNA is no longer detectable. DBH, NPY, and NGF receptor immunoreactivities (and NGF receptor mRNA) persist into adult life, despite the loss of TH immunoreactivity at Day E15. The coincident expression of these markers with TH during the TC phase of development strongly suggests that the DBH-, NPY-, and NGF receptor-immunoreactive enteric neurons of later fetal life and adulthood are derived from TC precursors. Substance P, serotonin, and NPY are coexpressed with DBH in enteric neurons of adult rats, suggesting that these noncatecholaminergic cells of the mature bowel are also derived from TC progenitors. These observations support the idea that at least some, and perhaps all, of the vagal crest-derived precursors of enteric neurons transiently express a catecholaminergic phenotype while migrating to and within the gut. The ability to synthesize catecholamines is lost as the neurons acquire their terminally differentiated phenotype in the enteric microenvironment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-380
Number of pages28
JournalDevelopmental Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1990
Externally publishedYes


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology

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