The ventral pancreas, biliary system and liver arise from the posterior ventral foregut, but the cell-intrinsic pathway by which these organ lineages are separated is not known. Here we show that the extrahepatobiliary system shares a common origin with the ventral pancreas and not the liver, as previously thought.

These pancreatobiliary progenitor cells co-express the transcription factors PDX1 and Sox17 at e8.5, and their segregation into a PDX1+ ventral pancreas and a Sox17+ biliary primordium is Sox17-dependent. Deletion of Sox17 at e8.5 results in the loss of biliary structures and ectopic pancreatic tissue in the liver bud and common duct, while Sox17 overexpression suppresses pancreas development and promotes ectopic biliary-like tissue throughout the PDX1+ domain. Restricting Sox17+ biliary progenitor cells to the ventral region of the gut requires the Notch effector Hes1.

Our results highlight the role of Sox17 and Hes1 in patterning and morphogenetic segregation of ventral foregut lineages.

Genomics of Endocrine and Exocrine Pancreas Development

The pancreas is a vital, endodermally derived organ that regulates glucose homeostasis and digestion. To investigate molecular pathways underlying the development of the pancreas, we used transcriptional profiling to identify the genes expressed during endocrine pancreas development. 

We focused our analyses on four biologically significant stages of pancreas development:

  • Prepancreatic endoderm
  • Early pancreatic cells
  • Endocrine progenitor cells
  • Islets of Langerhans

We have used GeneSpring and Resolver clustering analysis software to identify known and novel genes that are temporally regulated during endocrine development, as well as genes that spatially define these cells from their neighbors.

The Role of Beta-Catenin / Wnt Signaling in Pancreas Development

The above studies demonstrated that components of the Wnt pathway are expressed during pancreas development. In particular, several Wnt receptors are expressed in the nonendocrine population of cells.

To study the role of Wnt signaling in pancreas development, in collaboration with Andy Lowy at the University of Cincinnati (now at University of San Diego), the Wnt effector protein, beta-catenin, was knocked out in the developing pancreas. Animals lacking beta-catenin in the developing pancreas have no remarkable defects in endocrine pancreas development; however exocrine development is profoundly impaired. Microarray analyses of e14.5 and e16.5 pancreata lacking beta-catenin (in collaboration with Bruce Aronow, Cincinnati Children’s) indicated that exocrine cells are specified, but exocrine progenitor cells fail to proliferate and expand and prematurely differentiate. These data indicate that beta-catenin / Wnt signaling is required for expansion and maintenance of exocrine progenitor cells during development.

View publications from the Wells Lab in PubMed.