Small hepatocytes (SHs), which are known to be hepatic progenitor cells, were isolated from an adult rat liver. SHs in a colony sometimes change their shape from small to large and from flat to rising/piled-up. The aim of the present study is to clarify whether the alteration of cell shape is correlated with the maturation of SHs and whether extracellular matrix (ECM) can induce the morphological changes of SHs. We used liver-enriched transcription factors (LETFs) such as hepatocyte nuclear factor (HNF) 4α, HNF6, CCAAT/enhancer binding proteins (C/EBP) α, and C/EBPβ, tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase (TO), and serine dehydratase (SDH) as markers of hepatic maturation. To enrich the number of SH colonies, the colonies were isolated from dishes and replated. Replated colonies proliferated and the average number of cells per colony was about five times larger at day 9 than at day 1. When the cells were treated with laminin, type IV collagen, a mixture of laminin and type IV collagen, Matrigel™ or collagen gel (CG), only the cells treated with Matrigel dramatically changed their shape within several days and had reduced growth activity, whereas the cells treated with other ECM did not. HNF4α, HNF6, C/EBPα, C/EBPβ, and TO were well expressed in the cells treated with Matrigel. Furthermore, addition of both glucagon and dexamethasone dramatically induced the expression of SDH mRNA and protein in the cells treated with Matrigel. In conclusion, morphological changes of SHs may be correlated with hepatic maturation and basement membrane (BM)-like structure may induce the morphological changes of SHs. J. Cell. Biochem. 87: 16–28, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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