Pancreatic organogenesis has been a classic example of epitheliomesenchymal interactions. The nature of this interaction, and the way in which endocrine, acinar and ductal cell lineages are generated from the embryonic foregut has not been determined. It has generally been thought that mesenchyme is necessary for all aspects of pancreatic development. In addition islets have been thought to derive, at least in part, from ducts. We microdissected 11-day embryonic mouse pancreas and developed several culture systems for assays of differentiation: (i) on transparent filters; (ii) suspended in a collagen I gel; (iii) suspended in a basement membrane rich gel; (iv) under the renal capsule of an adult mouse. Epithelia were grown either with or without mesenchyme, and then assayed histologically and immunohistochemically. Epithelium with its mesenchyme (growth systems i-iv) always grew into fully differentiated pancreas (acinar, endocrine, adn ductal elements). In the basement membrane-rich gel, epithelium without mesenchyme formed ductal structures. Under the renal capsule of the adult mouse the epithelium without mesenchyme exclusively formed clusters of mature islets. These latter results represent the first demonstration of pure islets grown from early pancreatic precursor cells. In addition, these islets seemed not to have originated from ducts. We propose that the default path for growth of embryonic pancreatic epithelium is to form islets. In the presence of basement membrane constituents, however, the pancreatic analage epithelium appears to be programmed to form ducts. Mesenchyme seems not to be required for all aspects of pancreatic development, but rather only for the formation of acinar structures. In addition, the islets seem to form from early embryonic epithelium (which only express non-acinar genes). This formation occurs without any specific embryonic signals, and without any clear duct or acinus formation.

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