Investigating the spatiotemporal dynamics and fate decisions of axial progenitors and the potential of their in vitro counterparts
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Elongation of the mouse anteroposterior axis depends on stem cell-like axial progenitors including a neuromesodermal (NM) bi-fated population existing in the primitive streak and later in the tail bud. Fate mapping experiments have demonstrated these NM progenitors reside in precise locations of the embryo. At E8.5, these cells are found in the node-streak border (NSB) and anterior epiblast on either side of the primitive streak. At tail bud stages (E10.5-E13.5), these progenitors reside in the chordoneural hinge (CNH). The coexpression of the transcription factors T (brachyury) and Sox2 has been proposed as a good marker to identify NM progenitors in vertebrates. However, this cell signature has never been thoroughly assessed during mouse axis elongation. In this thesis, I performed T and Sox2 double immunofluorescent stainings on different stages of mouse embryos and reconstructed their expression domains in the 3D images to investigate the spatiotemporal dynamics of NM progenitors during axis elongation. The results show the transient existence of T+Sox2+ cells in the posterior progenitor zone, from the headfold stage (E8.0) to the end of axis elongation (E13.5, 65somites). Moreover, the number of T+Sox2+ cells increases between E8.5 and E9.5 but gradually declines afterwards. I then investigated the time points for initiation and loss of NM progenitors by performing a series of heterotopic grafting experiments. It has been previously shown that distal epiblast (Sox2+T- cells) at LS-EB stages (E7.5) are fated to become NSB cells in E8.5 embryos. However, when cells from the distal region of LS-EB stage embryos (E7.5) were grafted to E8.5 NSB, these cells contribute extensity to the notochord but not either neural tissues or paraxial mesoderm. This indicates that NM progenitors may be not yet specified before the onset of T and Sox2 coexpression, while the notochord progenitors are already specified at E7.5. The grafting experiments also show the loss of NM progenitors at E14.5 after the end of axis elongation, which coincides with the disappearance of T+Sox2+ cells in the tail. Collectively, these results indicate that T+Sox2+ cells may represent a distinct cell state that defines NM progenitors. Wnt/β-catenin signalling has been shown to play an important role in maintaining the posterior progenitor zone. However, due to the wide expression of β-catenin and the early lethality of β-catenin null embryos, the exact effect of losing β-catenin in NM progenitors is still unknown. In this study, I took advantage of the Cre-ERT2 system and grafting technique to conditionally delete β-catenin specifically in NM progenitors during ex vivo culture. The results show that Wnt/β-catenin signalling is required cell autonomously for initiating mesoderm fate choice in NM progenitors. In its absence, mesoderm fated NM progenitors convert their fate and differentiate to neural derivatives. Moreover, the interchangeability between neural and mesodermal fate only exists in NM progenitors, as the loss of β-catenin in mesoderm committed progenitors does not affect their fate choice. Using image analysis and quantification software, I also show that Wnt/β-catenin signalling is crucial for the expansion of T+Sox2+ NM progenitors during axis elongation. Due to difficult access and a limited number of NM progenitors in vivo, in vitro generated NM progenitors from pluripotent cells, such as epiblast stem cells (EpiSCs), can offer an insight into the maintenance and differentiation of NM progenitors. Since the in vivo potential of EpiSCs had never been successfully demonstrated before, I first grafted EpiSCs into postimplantation embryos and cultured them ex vivo for 24-48 hours to assess their cell integration. The results show that EpiSCs can integrate successfully in streak stage embryos (E6.5-E7.5), but not at early somite stages (E8.5), when the epiblast has lost its pluripotency. I then further investigated the in vivo potential of EpiSC derivatives. The results show that increasing Wnt signalling in EpiSCs inhibits their ability to generate anterior neural tissues in vivo, which is consistent with the previous in vitro data. Recently, it has been demonstrated that NM progenitors can be derived from EpiSCs. These in vitro derived NM progenitors can incorporate into E8.5 embryos and give rise to both neural and mesodermal derivatives. In this thesis, I show that these in vitro derived NM progenitors do not incorporate successfully in E7.5 embryos. Collectively, by combining grafting experiments with a chimeric embryo formation assay, I can identify the in vivo stage of the in vitro counterparts of the embryonic cell types.