Epithelial cell proliferation, division, and differentiation are critical for barrier repair following inflammation, but the initial trigger for this process is unknown. Here we define that sensing of apoptotic cells by the TAM receptor tyrosine kinase Axl is a critical indicator for tracheal basal cell expansion, cell cycle reentry, and symmetrical cell division. Furthermore, once the pool of tracheal basal cells has expanded, silencing of Axl is required for their differentiation. Genetic depletion of Axl triggers asymmetrical cell division, leading to epithelial differentiation and ciliated cell regeneration. This discovery has implications for conditions associated with epithelial barrier dysfunction, basal cell hyperplasia, and continued turnover of dying cells in patients with chronic inflammatory pulmonary diseases.
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