Fusion of bilateral shelves, to form the definitive mammalian secondary palate, is critically dependent on removal of the medial edge cells that constitute the midline epithelial seam. Conflicting views suggest that programmed apoptotic death or epithelial-mesenchymal transformation of these cells is predominantly involved. Due in part to the potentially ambiguous interpretation of static images and the notable absence of fate mapping studies, the process by which this is achieved has, however, remained mechanistically equivocal. Using an in vitro mouse model, we have selectively labelled palatal epithelia with DiI and examined the fate of medial edge epithelial (MEE) cells during palatal fusion by localisation using a combination of conventional histology and confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM). In dynamic studies using CLSM, we have made repetitive observations of the same palatal cultures in time-course investigations. Our results concurred with the established morphological criteria of seam degeneration; however, they provided no evidence of MEE cell death or transformation. Instead we report that MEE cells migrate nasally and orally out of the seam and are recruited into, and constitute, epithelial triangles on both the oral and nasal aspects of the palate. Subsequently these cells become incorporated into the oral and nasal epithelia on the surface of the palate. We hypothesize an alternative method of seam degeneration in vivo which largely conserves the MEE population by recruiting it into the nasal and oral epithelia.

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