Generation of neuroendocrine chromaffin cells from sympathoadrenal progenitors: Beyond the glucocorticoid hypothesis

Katrin Huber, Stephanie Combs, U. W.E. Ernsberger, Chaya Kalcheim, Klaus Unsicker*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The developmental diversification of neural crest-derived sympathoadrenal (SA) progenitor cells into neuroendocrine adrenal chromaffin cells and sympathetic neurons has been thought to be largely understood. Based on two decades of in vitro studies with isolated SA progenitor and chromaffin cells, it was widely assumed that chromaffin cell development crucially depends on glucocorticoid hormones provided by adrenal cortical cells. However, analysis of mice lacking the glucocorticoid receptor has revealed that the chromaffin cell phenotype develops largely normally in these mice, except for the induction of the adrenaline synthesizing enzyme phenylethylamine N-methyl transferase. In a search for novel candidate genes that might be involved in triggering the sympathetic neuron/chromaffin cell decision, we have studied putative contributions of transforming growth factor (TGF)-β, BMP-4, and the transcription factor MASH-1, molecules with distinct expressions in SA progenitor cells, in their migratory pathways and final destinations. TGF-β2 and -β3 and BMP-4 are highly expressed in the wall of the dorsal aorta and in the adrenal anlagen during and after immigration of SA progenitors but expressed at much lower levels in sympathetic ganglia. We found that neutralizing antibodies against all three TGF-β isoforms applied to the chorionicallantoic membrane (CAM) of quail embryos interfere with proliferation of immigrated adrenal chromaffin cells but do not affect their specific neuroendocrine ultrastructural phenotype. Grafting of noggin-producing cells to the CAM, which scavenges BMPs, interferes with visceral arch and limb development but does not overtly affect the chromaffin phenotype. The transcription factor MASH-1 promotes early differentiation of SA progenitors. Mice deficient for MASH-1 lack sympathetic ganglia, whereas the adrenal medulla previously has been reported to be present. We show here that most adrenal medullary cells in MASH-1-/- mice identified by Phox2b immunoreactivity lack the catecholaminergic marker tyrosine hydroxylase. More surprisingly, most cells do not contain chromaffin granules and display a neuroblast-like ultrastructure and show strongly enhanced expression of c-RET comparable to that observed in sympathetic ganglia. Together, our data suggest that TGF-βs and BMP-4 do not seem to be essential for chromaffin cell differentiation. In contrast with previous reports, however, MASH-1 apparently plays a crucial role in chromaffin cell development.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)554-559
Number of pages6
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 5 Jun 2002


  • Adrenal chromaffin cells
  • BMP
  • Catecholaminergic markers
  • MASH-1
  • Neural crest
  • Sympathoadrenal progenitor cells
  • TGF-β
  • Ultrastructure


Dive into the research topics of 'Generation of neuroendocrine chromaffin cells from sympathoadrenal progenitors: Beyond the glucocorticoid hypothesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this