Integrated platform to assay melanoblast development in vitro
Harrison, Olivia Jane
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Melanoblasts are the embryonic precursors of melanocytes, the pigment producing cells of the skin and hair. Melanoblasts are of key interest to developmental biologists for numerous reasons, including their ability to migrate throughout the body from a single origin in the neural crest (NC). Current methods for the study of the melanocyte lineage are limited by the heavy reliance on animal models. To challenge this, a platform of in vitro tools were designed to replace and complement current studies. A major obstacle is the transition from 2D cultures, which provide only limited behavioural information, to 3D models which are able to recapitulate the environmental conditions. 3D cultures are regularly created using tissue samples and synthetic matrices for attachment, but building a model from cell lines only has not been achieved. A co-culture model using immortalised keratinocyte (COCA) and melanoblast cell lines proved unsuitable for observing developmental processes, due to lack of movement at high cell densities, but may be practical in pigmentation research. Other methods were explored to examine melanoblast behaviour, including the use of cell derived matrices (CDMs) integrated with melanoblast cell lines, and aggregates formed by hanging drop (HD) culture. CDMs were successfully generated from the COCA line, as well as NIH3T3 fibroblasts which has been shown previously. These structures are denuded of cells to leave the deposited extracellular matrix (ECM) components intact, representative of the dermal (fibroblast) and epidermal (keratinocyte) layers of the skin. HDs were prepared from cultured melanoblast cell lines, and form tight aggregates which disseminate when plated, in a manner similar to the dissemination of cells from the NC in explant cultures. The receptor tyrosine kinase KIT and its ligand (KITL), are vital for melanoblast development. Previous study of this signalling complex has often focussed on the haematopoietic lineage and spermatogenesis, where they perform essential roles. KITL is expressed in a membrane localised form found on the surface of keratinocytes thought to promote melanoblast/melanocyte survival, and a soluble isoform found sequestered in the ECM which promotes cell migration. Cell lines expressing fluorescently tagged KIT and KITL were created to visualise their interactions using live-cell confocal imaging. Firstly, cell lines were generated to perform co-culture experiments with KIT and KITL, and we showed that these constructs are able to interact by uptake of KITL into KIT cells. Secondly, tandem fluorescent protein timers of KIT and KITL were generated which were used to observe protein kinetics. We showed that these protein timers can be manipulated using cycloheximide to block protein production, or by increasing ligand availability. These protein timers reveal that soluble KITL (sKITL) has a faster turnover than membrane bound KITL (mKITL), and that in all three proteins, there is distinct change in spatial localisation as the proteins age. Using a novel melanoblast reporter mouse, Pmel-CMN, primary mouse melanoblasts between E12.5 and E14.5 were isolated for RNA sequencing. This time period is the earliest reported for melanoblast isolation for use in gene expression analysis. We show that within this time course, there are significant changes in the RNA expression profiles, including decreasing expression of other NC cell markers, and huge increasing expression of pigmentation genes. To assess the biological relevance of using in vitro assays, cells of the immortalised melanoblast cell line, melb-a, were cultured under different conditions and examined via RNA sequencing. Results reveal differences in several areas between primary cells and those in culture, including loss of melanocyte specificity. The different tools described in this thesis provide a platform on which to study various aspects of cell behaviour, including migration, morphology and cell adhesion at both the individual cell and population levels.