Use of developmental marker genes to define temporal and spatial patterns of differentiation during embryoid body formation



Mouse embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells that are derived from the inner cell mass of blastocysts. When induced to synchronously enter a program of differentiation in vitro, they form embryoid bodies that contain cells of the mesodermal, hematopoietic, endothelial, muscle, and neuronal lineages. Here, we used a panel of marker genes with early expression within the germ layers (oct-3, Brachyury T, Fgf-5, nodal, and GATA-4) or a variety of lineages (flk-1, Nkx-2.5, EKLF, and Msx3) to determine how progressive differentiation of embryoid bodies in culture correlated with early postimplantation development of mouse embryos. Using RNA in situ hybridization, we found that the temporal and spatial relationships existing between these marker genes in vivo were maintained also in vitro. Studying the onset of marker gene expression allowed us also to determine the time course of differentiation during the formation of embryoid bodies. Thus, stages equivalent to embryogenesis between implantation and the beginning of gastrulation (4.5–6.5 d.p.c.) Occur within the first two days of embryoid body differentiation. Between days 3 and 5, embryoid bodies contain cell lineages found in embryos during gastrulation at 6.5 to 7.0 d.p.c., and after day 6 in culture, embryoid bodies are equivalent to early organogenesis-stage embryos (7.5 d.p.c.). In addition, we demonstrate that the panel of developmental markers can be applied in a screen for stage- or lineage-specific genes. Reporter gene expression from entrapment vector insertions can be co-localized with expression of specific markers within the same cell during embryoid body formation as well as during embryogenesis. Our results thus demonstrate the power of embryoid body formation as an in vitro model system to study early lineage determination and organogenesis in mammals, and indicate that they will prove to be useful tools for identifying developmental genes whose expression is restricted to particular lineages. J. Exp. Zool. 284:67–81, 1999. © 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.