Epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) plays a critical role during normal development and in adult tissue repair. It is known that immortalized epithelial cells can undergo an EMT and become cancer stem cells, and that epithelial cells from mouse pancreatic islet and avian inner ear can acquire mesenchymal traits in vitro via EMT. However, it is unclear whether epithelial cells from mammalian sensory system can undergo an EMT and obtain features of stem/progenitor cells. In this study, we used mouse utricle sensory epithelial cells (MUCs) as a mammalian cell model to address this issue. When cultured on 2-dimensional substrates, dissociated MUCs gradually lost their columnar shape and started to expand on the substrate with downregulation of expression of epithelial junction markers and upregulation of genes and proteins that are widely shown in mesenchymal cells. Moreover, MUCs expressed genes and proteins that are usually presented in prosensory epithelial cells and stem cells. These MUCs showed potential to differentiate into epithelial cells via a reverse EMT when they were forced to suspend in culture medium. Our findings reveal that sensory epithelial cells from mammalian tissue can undergo an EMT to become cells expressing features of stem cells that can be induced to become epithelial cells via a reverse EMT. The outcomes of this study may provide a novel approach to generate epithelial progenitors for use in cell replacement therapy to treat a number of human diseases, such as hearing loss and vision loss.
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