One of the earliest events in vertebrate eye development is the establishment of the pigmented epithelium and neural retina. These fundamentally different tissues derive from the invaginated optic vesicle, or optic cup. Even after achieving a fairly advanced state of differentiation, the pigmented epithelium exhibits the same potential as the optic cup in that it can “transdifferentiate” into neural retina. C. M. Park and M. J. Hollenberg (Dev. Biol. 134, 201–205, 1989) discovered that administration of basic fibroblast growth factor, coupled with retinal removal, could trigger this transformation in vivo. We have developed a quantitative in vitro assay to study the role(s) of the fibroblast growth factor (FGF) family in this phenomenon and more generally in early retinal development. We found that several aspects of the process, including inhibition of pigmented epithelium differentiation, proliferation, and conversion to a retinal fate, were not strictly correlated. Both acidic and basic FGFs were found to potentiate all aspects of the process, with acidic FGF being 4 to 20 times more potent than basic FGF for inhibition of pigmentation and induction of retinal antigens. Depending upon its concentration, acidic FGF induced from 40% to 80% of the cells in the explants to produce antigens normally expressed by retinal ganglion cells, the first cell type to be generated in retinal development. Expression of such a ganglion cell marker could be directly stimulated in non-dividing cells as well as in dividing cells, indicating that conversion from the pigmented epithelial to retinal fate did not require cell division. These data suggest that acidic FGF, or a related molecule, may function in establishment of retinal fate from the optic cup. This effect may be directly or indirectly mediated by induction of retinal ganglion cell fate among multipotent progenitor cells.

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