During the development of the mouse embryo, desmin is one of the first muscle proteins detected in both the heart and the somites. The expression of the desmin gene differs from most other muscle genes, since it is initiated in replicating myoblasts and accumulates as the muscle differentiates. We have characterized a muscle-specific enhancer which directs the expression of desmin in vitro in the myoblasts and myotubes of C2 cells but not in non-myogenic cells. We report here on the generation and characterization of transgenic mice bearing a transgene in which the 1 kb DNA 5′ regulatory sequence of the desmin gene is linked to a reporter gene coding for Escherichia coli beta-galactosidase (Des1-nlacZ). The enhancer activity of the desmin promoter is very strong and the reporter gene expression is easily detected in tissue sections. We have demonstrated that the regulatory elements present in the transgene Des1-nlacZ are sufficient to direct muscle-specific and developmentally regulated expression of nlacZ in skeletal muscles. Endogenous desmin expression and transgene activity were found to be correlated during the development of skeletal muscles. The transgene was expressed in the committed mononucleate myoblasts as well as in the myotubes. In addition, we have shown that the desmin-derived sequences direct a highly selective expression of nlacZ in cells that leave the somites and invade the limb bud, indicating that the cells that migrate from the somites are already predetermined for myogenesis. In contrast, smooth and cardiac muscle cells were beta-galactosidase negative both during embryonic and foetal development. Interestingly, the transgene was found to be expressed in the conduction system of the heart, which exhibits many features characteristic of skeletal muscles.

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