The phenotypically diverse neurones of the enteric nervous system are developmentally derived from precursors that migrate to the bowel from the vagal and sacral regions of the neuraxis. In order to gain insight into the generation of enteric neuronal diversity, we examined the expression of serotonin (5-HT), tyrosine hydroxylase and GABA in vitro. In the mature avian intestine, intrinsic neurones contain 5-HT or GABA but not tyrosine hydroxylase. These markers were demonstrated immunocytochemically, singly or simultaneously. All three phenotypic markers developed in cultures of cranial, vagal or truncal neural crest when the cultures were grown in enriched medium, containing horse serum and chick embryo extract; however, 5-HT and GABA, but not tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells, also developed in cultures that were grown in partially defined medium. Tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity was seen when partially defined medium was supplemented with nerve growth factor (NGF). Cultures of branchial arches (III and IV) contained cells that displayed tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity, but not that of 5-HT- or GABA-; however, 5-HT immunoreactivity was seen when branchial arches were cocultured with aneuronal hindgut (from 4-day chick embryos). Cultures of cells from chick gut dissociated at 7 days contained tyrosine hydroxylase as well as 5-HT and GABA immunoreactivities; however, no cultures of bowel dissociated at 8 days or later expressed tyrosine hydroxylase immunoreactivity. When neuraxial cells were cocultured with branchial arches or heart instead of gut, no 5-HT-immunoreactive cells were seen; nevertheless, the further addition of explants of gut to the heart/crest cocultures did permit the expression of 5-HT immunoreactivity. These results are consistent with the hypotheses that precursors with the potential to give rise to cells that express 5-HT, GABA and tyrosine hydroxylase are found at several levels of the neuraxis; however, the ability to express these phenotypes may be suppressed either while the crest cells are migrating (for example, 5-HT and GABA expression by crest cells passing through the branchial arches) or in their final destination (for example, tyrosine hydroxylase in the gut). This suppression may be transient and reversed by the microenvironment of the target organs.

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