The control of force production in vascular smooth muscle is critical to the normal regulation of blood flow and pressure, and altered regulation is common to diseases such as hypertension, heart failure, and ischemia. A great deal has been learned about imbalances in vasoconstrictor and vasodilator signals, e.g., angiotensin, endothelin, norepinephrine, and nitric oxide, that regulate vascular tone in normal and disease contexts. In contrast there has been limited study of how the phenotypic state of the vascular smooth muscle cell may influence the contractile response to these signaling pathways dependent upon the developmental, tissue-specific (vascular bed) or disease context. Smooth, skeletal, and cardiac muscle lineages are traditionally classified into fast or slow sublineages based on rates of contraction and relaxation, recognizing that this simple dichotomy vastly underrepresents muscle phenotypic diversity. A great deal has been learned about developmental specification of the striated muscle sublineages and their phenotypic interconversions in the mature animal under the control of mechanical load, neural input, and hormones. In contrast there has been relatively limited study of smooth muscle contractile phenotypic diversity. This is surprising given the number of diseases in which smooth muscle contractile dysfunction plays a key role. This review focuses on smooth muscle contractile phenotypic diversity in the vascular system, how it is generated, and how it may determine vascular function in developmental and disease contexts.
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