Epithelial stem cells and mechanical signal transduction: a functional unit?

Hair follicles are cutaneous structures characteristic of mammals. These sensitive organs cycle and contain multipotent epithelial stem cells which are implicated in hair growth and hair cycle. A single whisker follicle of the rat hosts up to 1500 stem cells, many more than necessary to regenerate the entire follicle throughout the animal's life. These cells are preferentially located in the most innervated region of the hair follicle. We hypothesised that stem cells might have an additional function aside from tissue renewal: stem cells may be involved in the mechanical signal transduction between hair follicle and afferent nervous system. This supplemental role may either take place through the interaction of the multipotent epithelial stem cells with nerve endings, or through neuroepithelial Merkel cells acting as intermediates. Merkel cells are located in the basal layer of the whisker follicle outer root sheath (ORS) and share a close relationship with their neighbouring nerve endings. These cells specifically express the transcription factor Math1 and their function is poorly understood. We demonstrate here by clonal analysis and transplantation assays that Merkel cells are not derived from epithelial stem cells. In addition, Math1-expressing cells isolated from the epidermis are unable to form colonies and to participate in the generation epidermal lineages when transplanted, failing to show stemness properties. Furthermore, when cultured in conditions that favour the growth of neurospheres, they are unable to proliferate, revealing a different behaviour than that of skin-derived neural crest cells. We also demonstrate that multipotent epithelial stem cells express several proteins implicated in glutamate neurotransmission, as well as other molecules usually found in the nervous system. The expression of NMDAR and AMPAR subunits, as well as their scaffolding proteins and neurotransmitter vesicular transport-implicated proteins are uncovered for the first time in the multipotent epithelial stem cells from the bulge. Our results support the mechanical signal transduction hypothesis and confirm the increasingly important role of the recently described neural-like structures of the skin. This work paves the way for a better comprehension of multipotent epithelial stem cell behaviour and stem cell-related pathologies.


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