The mesenchymal cell, its role in the embryo, and the remarkable signaling mechanisms that create it



This review centers on the role of the mesenchymal cell in development. The creation of this cell is a remarkable process, one where a tightly knit, impervious epithelium suddenly extends filopodia from its basal surface and gives rise to migrating cells. The ensuing process of epithelial–mesenchymal transformation (EMT) creates the mechanism that makes it possible for the mesenchymal cell to become mobile, so as to leave the epithelium and move through the extracellular matrix. EMT is now recognized as a very important mechanism for the remodeling of embryonic tissues, with the power to turn an epithelial somite into sclerotome mesenchyme, and the neural crest into mesenchyme that migrates to many targets. Thus, the time has come for serious study of the underlying mechanisms and the signaling pathways that are used to form the mesenchymal cell in the embryo. In this review, I discuss EMT centers in the embryo that are ready for such serious study and review our current understanding of the mechanisms used for EMT in vitro, as well as those that have been implicated in EMT in vivo. The purpose of this review is not to describe every study published in this rapidly expanding field but rather to stimulate the interest of the reader in the study of the role of the mesenchymal cell in the embryo, where it plays profound roles in development. In the adult, mesenchymal cells may give rise to metastatic tumor cells and other pathological conditions that we will touch on at the end of the review. Developmental Dynamics 233:706–720, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.