The mammary gland develops through several distinct stages. The first transpires in the embryo as the ectoderm forms a mammary line that resolves into placodes. Regulated by epithelial–mesenchymal interactions, the placodes descend into the underlying mesenchyme and produce the rudimentary ductal structure of the gland present at birth. Subsequent stages of development—pubertal growth, pregnancy, lactation, and involution—occur postnatally under the regulation of hormones. Puberty initiates branching morphogenesis, which requires growth hormone (GH) and estrogen, as well as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), to create a ductal tree that fills the fat pad. Upon pregnancy, the combined actions of progesterone and prolactin generate alveoli, which secrete milk during lactation. Lack of demand for milk at weaning initiates the process of involution whereby the gland is remodeled back to its prepregnancy state. These processes require numerous signaling pathways that have distinct regulatory functions at different stages of gland development. Signaling pathways also regulate a specialized subpopulation of mammary stem cells that fuel the dramatic changes in the gland occurring with each pregnancy. Our knowledge of mammary gland development and mammary stem cell biology has significantly contributed to our understanding of breast cancer and has advanced the discovery of therapies to treat this disease. WIREs Dev Biol 2012, 1:533–557. doi: 10.1002/wdev.35
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