The anterior segment of the vertebrate eye is constructed by proper spatial development of cells derived from the surface ectoderm, which become corneal epithelium and lens, neuroectoderm (posterior iris and ciliary body) and cranial neural crest (corneal stroma, corneal endothelium and anterior iris). Although coordinated interactions between these different cell types are presumed to be essential for proper spatial positioning and differentiation, the requisite intercellular signals remain undefined. We have generated transgenic mice that express either transforming growth factor (alpha) (TGF(alpha)) or epidermal growth factor (EGF) in the ocular lens using the mouse (alpha)A-crystallin promoter. Expression of either growth factor alters the normal developmental fate of the innermost corneal mesenchymal cells so that these cells often fail to differentiate into corneal endothelial cells. Both sets of transgenic mice subsequently manifest multiple anterior segment defects, including attachment of the iris and lens to the cornea, a reduction in the thickness of the corneal epithelium, corneal opacity, and modest disorganization in the corneal stroma. Our data suggest that formation of a corneal endothelium during early ocular morphogenesis is required to prevent attachment of the lens and iris to the corneal stroma, therefore permitting the normal formation of the anterior segment.

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