Expression of the transcription factor, Ascl3, marks a population of adult progenitor cells, which can give rise to both acinar and duct cell types in the murine salivary glands. Using a previously reported Ascl3EGFP-Cre/+ knock-in strain, we demonstrate that Ascl3-expressing cells represent a molecularly distinct, and proliferating population of progenitor cells located in salivary gland ducts. To investigate both the role of the Ascl3 transcription factor, and the role of the cells in which it is expressed, we generated knockout and cell-specific ablation models. Ascl3 knockout mice develop smaller salivary glands than wild type littermates, but secrete saliva normally. They display a lower level of cell proliferation, consistent with their smaller size. In the absence of Ascl3, the cells maintain their progenitor function and continue to generate both acinar and duct cells. To directly test the role of the progenitor cells, themselves, in salivary gland development and regeneration, we used Cre-activated expression of diphtheria toxin (DTA) in the Ascl3-expressing (Ascl3+) cell population, resulting in specific cell ablation of Ascl3+ cells. In the absence of the Ascl3+ progenitor cells, the mice developed morphologically normal, albeit smaller, salivary glands able to secrete saliva. Furthermore, in a ductal ligation model of salivary gland injury, the glands of these mice were able to regenerate acinar cells. Our results indicate that Ascl3+ cells are active proliferating progenitors, but they are not the only precursors for salivary gland development or regeneration. We conclude that maintenance of tissue homeostasis in the salivary gland must involve more than one progenitor cell population. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
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