Functional intestinal stem cells after Paneth cell ablation induced by the loss of transcription factor Math1 (Atoh1)
Intestinal epithelium has the capacity to self-renew and generate differentiated cells through the existence of two types of epithelial stem cells: active crypt base columnar cells (CBCs) and quiescent +4 cells. The behaviors of these cells are regulated both by intrinsic programs and by extrinsic signals sent by neighboring cells, which define the niche. It is clear that the β-catenin pathway acts as an essential intrinsic signal for the maintenance and proliferation of CBC, and it was recently proposed that Paneth cells provide a crucial niche by secreting Wingless/Int (Wnt) ligands. Here, we examined the effect of disrupting the intestinal stem cell niche by inducible deletion of the transcription factor Math1 (Atoh1), an essential driver of secretory cell differentiation. We found that complete loss of Paneth cells attributable to Math1 deficiency did not perturb the crypt architecture and allowed the maintenance and proliferation of CBCs. Indeed, Math1-deficient crypt cells tolerated in vivo Paneth cell loss and maintained active β-catenin signaling but could not grow ex vivo without exogenous Wnt, implying that, in vivo, underlying mucosal cells act as potential niche. Upon irradiation, Math1-deficient crypt cells regenerated and CBCs continued cycling. Finally, CBC stem cells deficient in adenomatous polyposis coli (Apc) and Math1 were able to promote intestinal tumorigenesis. We conclude that in vivo, Math1-deficient crypts counteract the absence of Paneth cell-derived Wnts and prevent CBC stem cell exhaustion.