Previous analyses of developmentally programmed capillary regression suggested two distinct causes of vascular endothelial cell (VEC) death. The first appeared to be macrophage-dependent (Lang, R. A. and Bishop, M. J. (1993) Cell 74, 453–462) while the second was proposed to result from cessation of blood flow (Lang, R. A., Lustig, M., Francois, F., Sellinger, M. and Plesken, H. (1994). Development 120, 3395–3403). Combined, these analyses suggested a model in which initial, macrophage-mediated endothelial cell apoptosis blocked blood flow within a capillary segment and, as a consequence, caused apoptosis of all remaining cells in the affected segment. In the current study, we have tested this model using a new method that combines vital and histological analyses as a means of determining the fate of whole capillary segments and individual cells in vivo. This technique revealed that one of the first events in regression was the apoptosis of a single VEC in otherwise normal, flowing capillary segments (initiating apoptosis). These isolated, dying VECs projected into and restricted the capillary lumen, imposing either a temporary or permanent block to blood flow. Following cessation of flow, synchronous apoptosis of VECs occurred (secondary apoptosis). In addition, a quantitative analysis revealed a reciprocal relationship between plasma flow and VEC apoptosis. These observations are consistent with a model for capillary regression in which macrophages induce apoptosis in a limited number of VECs and, as a consequence of a block to blood flow, also cause apoptosis in those remaining.

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