Cell-cell interaction via the gap junction regulates cell growth and differentiation, leading to formation of organs of appropriate size and quality. To determine the role of connexin43 in salivary gland development, we analyzed its expression in developing submandibular glands (SMGs). Connexin43 (Cx43) was found to be expressed in salivary gland epithelium. In ex vivo organ cultures of SMGs, addition of the gap junctional inhibitors 18α-glycyrrhetinic acid (18α-GA) and oleamide inhibited SMG branching morphogenesis, suggesting that gap junctional communication contributes to salivary gland development. In Cx43-/- salivary glands, submandibular and sublingual gland size was reduced as compared with those from heterozygotes. The expression of Pdgfa, Pdgfb, Fgf7, and Fgf10, which induced branching of SMGs in Cx43-/- samples, were not changed as compared with those from heterozygotes. Furthermore, the blocking peptide for the hemichannel and gap junction channel showed inhibition of terminal bud branching. FGF10 induced branching morphogenesis, while it did not rescue the Cx43-/- phenotype, thus Cx43 may regulate FGF10 signaling during salivary gland development. FGF10 is expressed in salivary gland mesenchyme and regulates epithelial proliferation, and was shown to induce ERK1/2 phosphorylation in salivary epithelial cells, while ERK1/2 phosphorylation in HSY cells was dramatically inhibited by 18α-GA, a Cx43 peptide or siRNA. On the other hand, PDGF-AA and PDGF-BB separately induced ERK1/2 phosphorylation in primary cultured salivary mesenchymal cells regardless of the presence of 18α-GA. Together, our results suggest that Cx43 regulates FGF10-induced ERK1/2 phosphorylation in salivary epithelium but not in mesenchyme during the process of SMG branching morphogenesis.
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