Previous studies with embryonic tissue explants showed that cellular interactions with mesenchyme are required for endodermal cells to differentiate into hepatocytes. However, these studies assayed hepatocyte characteristics that were evident after days of culture, leaving open the question of whether the primary inductive interactions initiated hepatocyte differentiation, or whether subsequent steps, such as may occur during cell aggregation to form the liver, were necessary. Using the technique of in situ hybridization, we find that serum albumin mRNA, a liver-specific gene product, is first detected in hepatic precursor cells of the endoderm as early as 9.5 days of mouse embryo development, a full day prior to cell aggregation and liver formation. The endodermal cells express albumin mRNA upon migration into strands of connective tissue matrix within mesenchyme. Thus, the onset of differentiation of the endoderm is coincident with its interaction with mesenchyme. Early albumin transcripts are initiated at the same site of the albumin promoter as in adult hepatocytes, suggesting that at least a subset of the transcription factors that control albumin transcription in the adult may be involved in executing the early steps of hepatic determination. We also observe a sharp increase in albumin mRNA levels shortly after the definitive formation of the liver, apparently reflecting cell interactions that enhance hepatocyte differentiation. Hepatocyte differentiation is therefore similar in several respects to pancreatic exocrine cell development, and may represent a general pattern for gut-derived tissues. For both cell types, early interactions with mesenchyme are coincident with the initial expression of differentiated gene products at a low level in proliferating endoderm, and the initial pattern of expression is amplified upon organ formation.

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