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Not just inductive: a crucial mechanical role for the endoderm during heart tube assembly
Victor D. Varner, Larry A. Taber


The heart is the first functioning organ to form during development. During gastrulation, the cardiac progenitors reside in the lateral plate mesoderm but maintain close contact with the underlying endoderm. In amniotes, these bilateral heart fields are initially organized as a pair of flat epithelia that move towards the embryonic midline and fuse above the anterior intestinal portal (AIP) to form the heart tube. This medial motion is typically attributed to active mesodermal migration over the underlying endoderm. In this model, the role of the endoderm is twofold: to serve as a mechanically passive substrate for the crawling mesoderm and to secrete various growth factors necessary for cardiac specification and differentiation. Here, using computational modeling and experiments on chick embryos, we present evidence supporting an active mechanical role for the endoderm during heart tube assembly. Label-tracking experiments suggest that active endodermal shortening around the AIP accounts for most of the heart field motion towards the midline. Results indicate that this shortening is driven by cytoskeletal contraction, as exposure to the myosin-II inhibitor blebbistatin arrested any shortening and also decreased both tissue stiffness (measured by microindentation) and mechanical tension (measured by cutting experiments). In addition, blebbistatin treatment often resulted in cardia bifida and abnormal foregut morphogenesis. Moreover, finite element simulations of our cutting experiments suggest that the endoderm (not the mesoderm) is the primary contractile tissue layer during this process. Taken together, these results indicate that contraction of the endoderm actively pulls the heart fields towards the embryonic midline, where they fuse to form the heart tube.

  • Accepted February 17, 2012.
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