Mesenchymal patterning is an active process whereby genetic commands coordinate cell adhesion, sorting and condensation, and thereby direct the formation of morphological structures. In mice that lack the Hoxa13 gene, the mesenchymal condensations that form the autopod skeletal elements are poorly resolved, resulting in missing digit, carpal and tarsal elements. In addition, mesenchymal and endothelial cell layers of the umbilical arteries (UAs) are disorganized, resulting in their stenosis and in embryonic death. To further investigate the role of Hoxa13 in these phenotypes, we generated a loss-of-function allele in which the GFP gene was targeted into the Hoxa13 locus. This allele allowed FACS isolation of mesenchymal cells from Hoxa13 heterozygous and mutant homozygous limb buds. Hoxa13(GFP) expressing mesenchymal cells from Hoxa13 mutant homozygous embryos are defective in forming chondrogenic condensations in vitro. Analysis of pro-adhesion molecules in the autopod of Hoxa13 mutants revealed a marked reduction in EphA7 expression in affected digits, as well as in micromass cell cultures prepared from mutant mesenchymal cells. Finally, antibody blocking of the EphA7 extracellular domain severely inhibits the capacity of Hoxa13(GFP) heterozygous cells to condense and form chondrogenic nodules in vitro, which is consistent with the hypothesis that reduction in EphA7 expression affects the capacity of Hoxa13(-/-) mesenchymal cells to form chondrogenic condensations in vivo and in vitro. EphA7 and EphA4 expression were also decreased in the mesenchymal and endothelial cells that form the umbilical arteries in Hoxa13 mutant homozygous embryos. These results suggest that an important role for Hoxa13 during limb and UA development is to regulate genes whose products are required for mesenchymal cell adhesion, sorting and boundary formation.
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