The transcription factor Gata4 is essential for normal heart morphogenesis and regulates the survival, growth, and proliferation of cardiomyocytes. We tested if Gata4 can specify cardiomyocyte fate from an uncommitted stem or progenitor cell population, by developing a system for conditional expression of Gata4 in embryonic stem cells. We find that in embryoid body cultures containing even a low ratio of these cells, expression of Gata4 is sufficient to enhance significantly the generation of cardiomyocytes, via a non-cell-autonomous mechanism. The Gata4-expressing cells do not generate cardiac or other mesoderm derivatives. Rather, Gata4 expression directs the development of two types of Sox17+ endoderm. This includes an epCam+Dpp4+ subtype of visceral endoderm. In addition, Gata4 generates similar amounts of epCam+Dpp4- definitive endoderm enriched for Cxcr4, FoxA2, FoxA3, Dlx5 and other characteristic transcripts. Both types of endoderm express cardiac-inducing factors, including WNT antagonists Dkk1 and Sfrp5, although the visceral endoderm subtype has much higher cardiac-inducing activity correlating with relatively enhanced levels of transcripts encoding BMPs. The Gata4-expressing cells eventually express differentiation markers showing commitment to liver development, even under conditions that normally support mesoderm development. The results suggest that Gata4 is capable of specifying endoderm fates that facilitate, with temporal and spatial specificity, the generation of cardiomyocyte progenitors from associated mesoderm. © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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