Distribution of EGF and its receptor in growing red deer antler


Corresponding author. p.barling@auckland.ac.nz


Autografts of the osteogenic part of early antler buds placed elsewhere on the skull have been shown by others to give rise to an antler at the site of grafting. This antler becomes covered in velvet skin, is shed at the end of the growing season and will regrow the following year. Thus, it can be concluded that the nature of antler velvet skin is primarily determined by the underlying osteogenic antler tissue to which it is attached. We hypothesise that a paracrine mechanism operates here and is central to communication between the antler osseous compartment and the integument. A signalling system comprising epidermal growth factor (EGF) and its receptor (EGFR) is known to be expressed in osteogenic cells and to play an important role in skin development and growth. This system may therefore play a significant role in determining the nature and speed of growth of velvet skin via paracrine signalling from osteogenic tissue. We have used bright-field microscope immunohistochemistry to determine the distribution of EGF and its receptor in developing red deer antler osseous compartment and integument. EGF was localized throughout the epidermis and epidermal appendages, in cells of the mesenchyme, in chondrocytes, and in cells of the osteoblastic lineage, including osteoprogenitor cells, osteoblasts and osteocytes. There was strong evidence supporting nuclear and nucleolar staining in sebaceous glands and in keratinocytes. The EGFR was similarly expressed in mesenchyme, chondrocytes and osteoblasts. In skin, the distribution of the EGFR was more localized, being expressed strongly in the deeper cells of the epidermis but not in superficial layers, and was absent from nuclei of cells of the epidermis and its appendages. We conclude that this signalling system is widely distributed in growing antler in a manner which suggests it is predominantly autocrine. No clear-cut evidence for paracrine signalling pathways for this system in either integument or osseous compartments was found. The pattern of distribution of the EGFR in the integument was similar to that seen by others in adult human skin. By contrast, in developing antler osseocartilage, the patterns of distribution were similar to those seen in rodent fetal bone. We conclude that antler consists of rapidly growing fetal osseocartilage overlayed by mature velvet.