In segmented organs, homeobox genes are involved in axial patterning and cell identity. Much less is known about their role in non-segmented endoderm derivatives such as the digestive epithelium. Using a xenograft model of fetal intestinal anlagen implanted under the skin of nude mice, we have investigated whether the expression of five homeobox genes (HoxA-4, HoxA-9, HoxC-8, Cdx-1 and Cdx-2) is modified when intestinal epithelium undergoes normal development or displays heterodifferentiation in association with heterotopic mesenchyme. In homotypic associations of fetal endoderm and mesenchyme that recapitulate normal development, the overall pattern of homeobox gene expression was maintained: HoxA-9 and HoxC-8 were the highest in the colon and ileum, respectively, and HoxA-4 was expressed all along the intestine; Cdx-1 and Cdx-2 exhibited an increasing gradient of expression from small intestine to colon. Yet, grafting per se caused a faint upregulation of HoxA-9 and HoxC-8 in small intestinal regions in which these genes are not normally expressed, while the endoderm-mesenchyme dissociation-association step provoked a decay of Cdx-1 in the colon. In heterotopic associations of colonic endoderm with small intestinal mesenchyme, the colonic epithelium exhibited heterodifferentiation to a small intestinal-like phenotype. In this case, we observed a decay of HoxA-9 expression and an upregulation of HoxC-8. Additionally, heterodifferentiation of the colonic epithelium was accompanied by a downregulation of Cdx-1 and Cdx-2 to a level similar to that found in the normal small intestine. To demonstrate that mesenchyme-derived cells can influence Cdx-1 and Cdx-2 expression in the bowel epithelium, fetal jejunal endoderm was associated with intestinal fibroblastic cell lines that either support small intestinal-like or colonic-like morphogenesis. A lower expression of both homeobox genes was shown in grafts presenting the small intestinal phenotype than in those showing glandular colonic-like differentiation. Taken together, these results suggest that homeobox genes participate in the control of the positional information and/or cell differentiation in the intestinal epithelium. They also indicate that the level of Cdx-1 and Cdx-2 homeobox gene expression is influenced by epithelial-mesenchymal cell interactions in the intestinal mucosa.

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