A rhythmic heart beat is coordinated by conduction of pacemaking impulses through the cardiac conduction system. Cells of the conduction system, including Purkinje fibers, terminally differentiate from a subset of cardiac muscle cells that respond to signals from endocardial and coronary arterial cells. A vessel-associated paracrine factor, endothelin, can induce embryonic heart muscle cells to differentiate into Purkinje fibers both in vivo and in vitro. During this phenotypic conversion, the conduction cells down-regulate genes characteristic of cardiac muscle and up-regulate subsets of genes typical of both skeletal muscle and neuronal cells. In the present study, we examined the expression of myogenic transcription factors associated with the switch of the gene expression program during terminal differentiation of heart muscle cells into Purkinje fibers. In situ hybridization analyses and immunohistochemistry of embryonic and adult hearts revealed that Purkinje fibers up-regulate skeletal and atrial muscle myosin heavy chains, connexin-42, and neurofilament protein. Concurrently, a cardiac muscle-specific myofibrillar protein, myosin-binding protein-C (cMyBP-C), is down-regulated. During this change in transcription, however, Purkinje fibers continue to express cardiac muscle transcription factors, such as Nkx2.5, GATA4, and MEF2C. Importantly, significantly higher levels of Nkx2.5 and GATA4 mRNAs were detected in Purkinje fibers as compared to ordinary heart muscle cells. No detectable difference was observed in MEF2C expression. In culture, endothelin-induced Purkinje fibers from embryonic cardiac muscle cells dramatically down-regulated cMyBP-C transcription, whereas expression of Nkx2.5 and GATA4 persisted. In addition, myoD, a skeletal muscle transcription factor, was up-regulated in endothelin-induced Purkinje cells, while Myf5 and MRF4 transcripts were undetectable in these cells. These results show that during and after conversion from heart muscle cells, Purkinje fibers express a unique myogenic transcription factor program. The mechanism underlying down-regulation of cardiac muscle genes and up-regulation of skeletal muscle genes during conduction cell differentiation may be independent from the transcriptional control seen in ordinary cardiac and skeletal muscle cells.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Molecular Biology
- Developmental Biology
- Cell Biology