Cellular interactions with substrata of the microenvironment are one of the major mechanisms for differentiation and morphogenesis. Many of these interactions are mediated via the beta 1 integrin subfamily of cell surface receptors, which are believed to transduce signals upon cell adhesion. We have used beta 1 integrin-deficient embryonic stem cells to test their ability to differentiate into cardiac muscle cells. We show here by several approaches that beta 1 integrin is important for normal cardiogenesis. First, the in vitro differentiation of beta 1 integrin-deficient embryonic stem cells into cardiac muscle cells is retarded. This is demonstrated by the delayed expression of cardiac muscle-specific genes and action potentials. Second, the specification of cardiac precursor cells into pacemaker-, atrial- and ventricular-like cells is significantly impaired in beta 1 integrin-deficient cells. The occurrence of atrial- and ventricular-like cells is reduced and transient. Only cells exhibiting peacemaker-like action potentials of high frequency and arrhythmias survive. Third, the sarcomeric architecture is incomplete and disarranged in the absence of beta 1 integrin. Fourth, beta 1-deficient embryonic stem cells can contribute to the developing heart in chimaeric mice but many areas with beta 1-null cells contain cell debris. The number of beta 1-null cells decrease from prenatal to postnatal stages and is lost completely in 6-month-old hearts. Thus, we conclude that interactions with the extracellular matrix via beta 1 integrin is necessary for differentiation and the maintenance of a specialized phenotype of cardiac muscle cells.

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