The study of the regulation of gene expression in cultured cells, particularly in epithelial cells, has been both hampered and facilitated by the loss of function that accompanies culture on traditional plastic substrata. Initially, investigations of differentiated function were thwarted by the inadequacy of tissue culture methods developed to support growth of mesenchymal cells. However, with the recognition that the unit of function in higher organisms is larger than the cell itself, and that gene expression is dependent upon cell interactions with hormones, substrata and other cells, came the understanding that the epithelial cell phenotype is profoundly influenced by the extra-cellular environment. In the last decade research on epithelial cells has centred on culture conditions that recreate the appropriate environment for function with very promising and important results. The investigations into the modulation of phenotype in culture produced not only a better model, but also contributed to a better understanding of the regulation of normal function. Using cultured mammary gland epithelial cells as a primary model of these interactions, our studies of gene expression are based on three premises.

  1. That the extracellular matrix (ECM) on which the cells sit is an extension of the cells and an active participant in the regulation of cellular function; i.e. the ECM is an ‘informational’ entity in the sense that it receives, imparts and integrates structural and functional signals.

  2. That ECM-induced functional differentiation in the mammary gland is mediated through changes in cell shape, i.e. that the structure is in large part ‘the message’ required to maintain differentiated gene expression.

  3. That the unit of function includes the cell plus its extracellular matrix; in a larger context, the unit is the organ itself.

These tenets and the data presented below are consistent with a model of ‘Dvnamic Reciprocity’, where the ECM is postulated to exert an influence on gene expression via transmembrane proteins and cytoskeletal components. In turn, cytoskeletal association with polyribosomes affects mRNA stability and rates of protein synthesis, while its interaction with the nuclear matrix could affect mRNA processing and, possibly, rates of transcription.

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