Embryonic Explants from Xenopus laevis as an Assay System to Study Differentiation of Multipotent Precursor Cells
Holtfreter showed that the mortified dorsal lip of a gastrula stage amphibian embryo led to the induction of neural tissue (neurale Blasen) in conjugated ectodermal explants (Fig. lb). In 1971, Sudarwati and Nieuwkoop demonstrated that vegetal tissue is capable of inducing mesoderm in combined animal cap explants using the South African clawed frog Xenopus laevis as a source for animal cap explants (mesoderm induction assay). More recently, the animal cap system has been utilized to tackle a broad variety of developmental problems, including the specification of all germ layers, organ formation, and expression screenings for secreted proteins (Sudarwati and Nieuwkoop, 1971; Gurdon et al., 1985; Slack, 1990; Smith et al., 1990; Green et al., 1992; Moriya et al., 2000).
II. MATERIALS AND INSTRUMENTATION
Adult X. laevis frogs are from NASCO (Wisconsin). The reagents used are agarose (Cat. No. 15510-027, GibcoBRL); albumin bovine (BSA, Cat. No. A-8806, Sigma); chorionic gonadotropin (HCG, Cat. No. CG- 10, Sigma); L-15 (Leibovitz, GibcoBRL); L-cysteine hydrochloride monohydrate (Cat. No. 30129, Fluka); HEPES (Cat. No. H-3375, Sigma); and penicillin/ streptomycin solution (with 10,000 units penicillin and 10mg streptomycin/ml, Cat. No. P-0781, Sigma). All other chemicals used are from Merck.
The gastromaster and replacement microsurgery tips are from XENOTEK Engineering (Belleville, IL). The microinjector for RNA injection is from Eppendorf (Microinjector 5242, Eppendorf).
III. BASIC PROCEDURES
The basic principles of the procedure have been described previously (Grunz and Tacke, 1989; Hollemann et al., 1998). In addition to an update of the basic protocol, this article describes several readout systems that can be applied.
Modified Barth's solution (MBS): 88mM NaCI, 2.4 mM NaHCO3, 1.0 mM KCI, 10 mM HEPES, 0.82mM MgSO4, 0.41mM CaCl2, and 0.33mM Ca(NO3)2, pH 7.4
Ca2+M//Mg2+-free MBS: 88mM NaCl, 2.4mM NaHCO3, 1.0mM KCl, and 10mM HEPES, pH 7.4
L-15/BSA solution: 65% L-15 and 0.1% BSA, pH 7.4
PCR mix (one reaction; 25/µl): 2.5µl 10× polymerase chain reaction (PCR) buffer containing 15mM MgCl2 (Roche), 0.2µl 25mM dNTPs (Biomol), 0.375 µl 10 µM forward primer, 0.375 µl 10 µM reverse primer, 21.425 µl PCR grade H2O and 0.125 µl Ampli Taq DNA polymerase (5U/µl) (Roche)
Histone H4 primer: H4-F: 5'-CGGGATAACATTC AGGGTATCACT-3' and H4-R: 5'-ATCCATGGCG GTAACTGTCTTCCT-3'
RT mix (one reaction; 5µl): 1 µl 25 mM MgCl2 solution, 0.5 µl 10× PCR buffer II, 2 µl 2.5 mM dNTPs, 0.25 µl RNase inhibitor (20U/µl), 0.25µl MuLV reverse transcriptase (RT) (50U/µl), 0.25µl 50µM random hexamers, and 0.75µl (35 ng) RNA sample
PCR(RT) mix (one reaction; 20ml): 0.5 ml 25 mM MgCl2 solution, 2ml 10× PCR buffer II, 16.625 ml RNasefree H2O, 0.375ml 10mM forward primer, 0.375 ml 10mM reverse primer, and 0.125 ml Ampli Taq DNA polymerase (5 U/ml)
A. Preparation of Animal Cap Explants
At the late blastula stage (stage 8.5-9), Xenopus embryos show a relatively defined segregation of presumptive ectoderm (animal pole), mesoderm (equatorial area), and endoderm (vegetal pole); the blastocoel has attained its full size, and the inner surface of the blastocoel becomes smooth. The roof of the blastocoel, the animal cap (very top of the animal pole), consists of a single outer layer and two inner layers of cells. The pigmentation pattern and the cell size differences make it possible to roughly distinguish the presumptive ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm from outside of the embryo. However, the easiest way to identify the animal pole (animal cap) is to look at the embryos directly. What you see from the top is the animal pole, as the embryos are naturally floating inside the vitelline membrane with the animal pole up and the vegetal pole down due to gravity.
Preparation of Xenopus Embryos
Eggs from adult Xenopus are obtained from females 6-8h after injection with human chorionic gonadotropin (500-1000 U/frog) and fertilized with minced testis in 0.1× MBS. Forty minutes after fertilization, dejelly the embryos in 2% cysteine (pH 8.0) and wash extensively in 0.1× MBS.
Isolation (Cutting) of Animal Cap Explants
As there is no marker to clearly delineate the boundary of presumptive ectoderm and mesoderm in a living embryo, it is difficult to isolate animal caps without presumptive mesodermal cell contamination. Many tools, including forceps, hair loops, fine glass needles, and tungsten needles, have been developed for cutting animal caps. The most advanced tool is the gastromaster. No matter which tool is used, the first step is to manually remove the vitelline membrane of stage 8.5-9 embryos (the best stage for capping) with a pair of watchmaker's forceps in a petri dish coated with 1% agarose. Although the manufacturer of the gastromaster demonstrates that it is possible to directly isolate animal caps without removing the vitelline membrane (see video clips at http://www.gastromaster.com/), we strongly recommend removing the membrane manually. The forceps do not have to be very sharp, but the two tips should be well matching. Digging a small pit into the surface of the coated agarose is helpful for fixing the embryo during manipulation. It is recommended to hold and remove the vitelline membrane with forceps from the equatorial area or from the vegetal pole, thus avoiding damage to the animal pole cells. Once the embryos are released from the vitelline membrane, they can no longer rotate freely according to gravity. Therefore, in order to isolate a clean animal cap from the right animal pole region, it is extremely important to properly orientate the nude embryo animal pole up and vegetal pole down (Fig. 2a). Dissect the animal cap (very top region of the animal pole, illustrated by the dashed circle in Fig. 2a) in 0.5× MBS using a gastromaster equipped with a yellow microsurgery tip of 400-500 mm in width (Figs. 2b-2e). This step is quite easy compared to the removal of vitelline membrane. We encourage visiting the gastromaster manufacturer's website for video clips that nicely demonstrate the dissecting process. Culture animal caps in 0.5× MBS containing penicillin (100U/ml) and streptomycin (100µg/ml) and harvest until control siblings have reached desired developmental stages for further analyses.
B. Manipulation of Animal Cap Cells
RNA Injection Techniques
One approach to investigate the activity of individual proteins is to introduce the corresponding mRNAs into the animal pole of early cleavage stage embryos followed by the isolation of animal caps for further analysis. Depending on the gene of interest, 5-2000 pg, e.g., FGF or XCYP26 (Isaacs et al., 1992; Hollemann et al., 1998), of in vitro-synthesized capped mRNA (Mega Message Machine, Ambion, USA) in 10nl RNase-free water can be microinjected into the animal pole of both blastomeres of two-cell stage embryos, which are transferred into l× MBS and kept at 13°C to slow down development during injection. Two hours after injection, culture embryos again in 0.1× MBS.
Application of Growth Factors
An alternative approach to monitoring the inductive activities of growth factors is to directly apply the active form of a given growth factor protein to the isolated animal caps with or without dissociation. The advantage of dissociation is that each cell is exposed to a uniform factor concentration.
Dissect animal caps from uninjected embryos as described earlier and keep in l× Ca2+M//Mg2+-free MBS in petri dishes coated with 0.7% agarose (about 50 caps per 60-mm petri dish). All the solutions used during disaggregation and reaggregation include penicillin (100 U/ml) and streptomycin (100µg/ml). After approximately 15min, cells start to dissociate. Mechanical sucking and blowing of the caps with a yellow pipette tip facilitates the disaggregation process. Caution should be taken to avoid damaging the cells. When the caps are completely disaggregated, replace the Ca2+M//Mg2+-free MBS first with l× MBS and then with the L-15/BSA solution. After the treatment, wash and reaggregate cells in l× MBS by gentle shaking of the petri dish. To reaggregate the cells, remove most of the solution from the petri dish with a vacuum pump and then swirl the cells together to the center of the dish by applying l× MBS from one edge of the dish with the special apparatus invented by Horst Grunz that can supply continuous flow over a regulated tube connected to a glass bottle (for details of the apparatus, please visit Horst Grunz's website at http://www.uni-essen.de/zoophysiologie). Alternatively, aggregation can be done by shaking the petri dish gently. After one hour, cut the reaggregated cell mass (cake-like) into several pieces with a glass needle and transfer to sterilized larger glass culture bottles (100ml) coated with 0.7% agarose. Freeze the tissues with liquid nitrogen when control siblings have developed to the desired stage of development.
C. Analysis (Readout Systems)
Effects on gene transcription can be analyzed by RTPCR and whole mount in situ hybridization.
The animal cap system can be used to elucidate which factors and signal transduction pathways regulate genes of interest or, vice-versa, which genes are downstream targets. Effects on gene transcription in explants can be analysed either by RNase protection or RT-PCR. We use a nonradioactive RT-PCR assay. It is normally sufficient to use this simple, semiquantitative approach to analyse strong effects on gene expression. A variety of other RT-PCR methods have also been described for Xenopus: quantitative, radioactive RTPCR (Rupp and Weintraub, 1991) and quantitative, competitive RT-PCR (Onate et al., 1992). The most sensitive and most reproducible technique based on fluorescence kinetics is quantitative real-time RT-PCR (Xanthos et al., 2002), but it requires a special thermocycler.
RNA Isolation from Animal Cap Explants
We use the RNeasy minikit (Qiagen) to isolate RNA from animal caps and whole embryos for RT-PCR analysis following the RNeasy miniprotocol for the isolation of total RNA from animal tissues (see manufacturer's instructions with modifications detailed later). Digest genomic DNA using DNase I (Qiagen) for on column treatment according to the manufacturer's protocol.
Collect 10-12 animal cap explants (or 5 embryos) per sample at the appropriate time in a microcentrifuge tube, remove excess buffer, and freeze animal cap explants (embryos) with liquid nitrogen for storage at -80°C. For RNA isolation, add 350 µl (600 µl) buffer RLT/βME to each tube directly on the frozen sample. Carry out all further steps at room temperature. Homogenize animal cap explants (embryos) immediately by passing the lysate five times through a 24-gauge needle fitted to an RNase-free syringe. Elute RNA by 30 µl (70 µl) RNase-free water (60°C) and place on ice. After measuring the RNA concentration, adjust all samples to the same concentration with RNase-free water and store at -80°C. Control RNA integrity by use of a 1.5% TBE agarose gel; 75-100ng of total RNA is normally obtained from a single animal cap explant.
Analysis of Genomic DNA Contamination
The exon-intron structure of most Xenopus genes is unknown. Therefore, primers used for the analysis that can target the same exon and genomic DNA contamination of isolated RNA would thus result in falsepositive signals. In order to control for genomic DNA contamination, a regular PCR reaction for histone H4 genomic DNA is performed. Add 1 µl RNA (50ng/µl) to 25µl PCR mix containing the histone H4-specific primer. Use genomic DNA (5 ng) as a positive control and H2O as a negative control, with the following cycling parameters: 94°C 2 min (94°C 45 s, 58°C 45 s, 72°C 30s) × 35, 72°C 5 min. Analyze one-half of the PCR on a 2% TBE agarose gel.
Whole Mount in Situ Hybridization
Gene expression on the RNA level in animal cap explants can also be analyzed by whole mount in situ hybridization, originally adapted for Xenopus embryos by Harland (1991). The advantage of this method in comparison to RT-PCR is that individual explants can be controlled for homogeneity of gene expression on the level of individual cells. The disadvantage is that substantial numbers of explants are required if several genes are to be analyzed in parallel. We use the basic protocol for whole mount in situ hybridization described previously (Hollemann et al., 1999) with the following minor modifications. In case of several samples, a transfer of fixed animal caps from glass vials to 24-well tissue culture plates before rehydration facilitates handling. Proteinase K treatment should be shortened to 5-8 min at room temperature.
RT-PCR Analysis of Animal Cap Explants
Many different genes are involved in the activation of the neuronal differentiation program, which drives naive ectodermal cells to become postmitotic neurons. In animal cap explants, X-ngnr-1 can also promote neurogenesis, as monitored by the activation of the neural determination marker N-tubulin. The density of cells expressing endogenous X-ngnr-1 is controlled by lateral inhibition mediated through Notch signalling (Ma et al., 1996). In response to misexpression of the intracellular domain of Notch (ICD) that mimics active Notch signalling, the expression of target genes, such as Esr7, is induced (Fig. 3).
Whole Mount in Situ Hybridization in Animal Cap Explants
In addition to neural and mesodermal tissue, animal cap explants can also be converted into endoderm. For instance, VegT can synergize with β-catenin to induce a number of liver- and intestine-specific genes in animal cap explants. Figure 4 shows an example of whole mount in situ hybridization analysis for the induction of an endoderm marker gene in an animal cap upon VegT/β-catenin injection.
The Animal Cap to Study Cell Migration
Upon treatment with activin or FGF, the animal cap is not only induced to become mesoderm (see above), but as a consequence of mesoderm induction, the animal cap also changes its form (Fig. 5). Whereas untreated animal caps round up and look like spherical balls, induced animal caps elongate as a consequence of cell movements within the animal cap (Kuhl et al., 2001). It is widely accepted that this kind of cell movement within the cap mimics mesodermal cell movements normally occurring during gastrulation of the Xenopus embryo. During gastrulation, cells from a more ventral position migrate towards the dorsal midline. The forces generated by this process in vitro not only push cells during gastrulation over the dorsal lip, but also lead to an elongation of the embryo along its anterior-posterior axis (for a review on cell movements during gastrulation, see Keller, 1986). With respect to gastrulation movements, the animal cap thus serves as an excellent system to study the molecular basis of cell migration. The elongation behaviour of injected or growth factor-treated caps can be studied and conclusions can be drawn on the function of a gene of interest with respect to cell migration. As an example, we show the effect of activin on animal caps (Fig. 5).
Recapitulation of Organ Formation in Animal Caps
b. Notochord from Dispersed Animal Cap Explant Cells. In response to different concentrations of activin, dispersed animal cap cells have been shown to exhibit sharp thresholds in respect to target gene activation. Activin A is added to the cells at a final concentration of 4 ng/ml for notochord differentiation and 8 ng/ml for endoderm differentiation and incubated at room temperature for 1 h. In most cases, more than 90% of the reaggregated tissue mass from each batch of preparation differentiated into notochords. Some neural cells were formed concomitantly.
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