The frogs seem to provide clues to why congenital defects like the DiGeorge syndrome occur.
The syndrome is the most common human disorder caused by a missing chromosome region, occurring at least once in 4,000 live births. It can vary in severity, but may affect many parts of the body, with symptoms including heart defects, immune and endocrine problems, cleft palate, gastrointestinal conditions, growth delay and neuropsychiatric abnormalities.
New research at the University of Pennsylvania offers insight into processes that regulate tissues formation in the heart.
Xenopus is a commonly used model organism for developmental studies, and is a particularly interesting for this kind of research because amphibians have a single ventricle and the outflow tract septum is incomplete.
In higher vertebrates, chickens and mice, the cardiac neural crest provides the needed separation for both circulations at the level of the outflow tract, remodeling one vessel into two. In fish, where there is no separation at all between the two circulations, the cardiac neural crest contributes to all regions of the heart.
"In the frog, we were expecting to find something that was in between fish and higher vertebrates, but that's not the case at all," said Saint-Jeannet. "It turns out that cardiac neural crest cells do not contribute to the outflow tract septum, they stop their migration before entering the outflow tract. The blood separation comes from an entirely different part of the embryo, known as the 'second heart field.'"
"As compared to other models the migration of the cardiac neural crest in amphibians has been dramatically changed through evolution," he said.
Saint-Jeannet's research will be published in the May 15 edition of the journal Development.
To determine where the neural crest cells migrated during development, the researchers labeled the embryonic cells with a fluorescent dye, then followed the path those marked cells took under a microscope. "We label the cardiac neural crest cells in one embryo and then graft them onto an embryo that is unlabeled. We let the embryo develop normally and look where those cells end up in the developing heart," said Saint-Jeannet.
Knowing these paths, and the biological signals that govern them, could have implications for human health.
"There are a number of pathologies in humans that have been associated with abnormal deployment of the cardiac neural crest, such as DiGeorge Syndrome," said Saint-Jeannet. "Among other developmental problems, these patients have an incomplete blood separation at the level of the outflow tract, because the cardiac neural crest does not migrate and differentiate at the proper location."
"Xenopus could be a great model to study the signals that cause those cells to migrate into the outflow tract of the heart,' said Saint-Jeannet. "If you can understand the signals that prevent or promote the colonization of this tissue, you can understand the pathology of something like DiGeorge syndrome and perhaps figure out what kind of molecule we can introduce there to force those cells to migrate further down."