Specific interactions of growth factors with heparan sulfate may function as "switches" to regulate stages of branching morphogenesis in developing mammalian organs, such as breast, lung, salivary gland and kidney, but the evidence derives mostly from studies of explanted tissues or cell culture (Shah et al., 2004). We recently provided in vivo evidence that inactivation of Ndst1, the predominant N-deacetylase/N-sulfotransferase gene essential for the formation of mature heparan sulfate, results in a highly specific defect in murine lobuloalveolar development (Crawford et al., 2010). Here, we demonstrate a highly penetrant dramatic defect in primary branching by mammary epithelial-specific inactivation of Ext1, a subunit of the copolymerase complex that catalyzes the formation of the heparan sulfate chain. In contrast to Ext1 deletion, inactivation of Hs2st (which encodes an enzyme required for 2-O-sulfation of uronic acids in heparan sulfate) did not inhibit ductal formation but displayed markedly decreased secondary and ductal side-branches as well as fewer bifurcated terminal end buds. Targeted conditional deletion of c-Met, the receptor for HGF, in mammary epithelial cells showed similar defects in secondary and ductal side-branching, but did not result in any apparent defect in bifurcation of terminal end buds. Although there is published evidence indicating a role for 2-O sulfation in HGF binding, primary epithelial cells isolated from Hs2st conditional deletions were able to activate Erk in the presence of HGF and there appeared to be only a slight reduction in HGF-mediated c-Met phosphorylation in these cells compared to control. Thus, both c-Met and Hs2st play important, but partly independent, roles in secondary and ductal side-branching. When considered together with previous studies of Ndst1-deficient glands, the data presented here raise the possibility of partially-independent regulation by heparan sulfate-dependent pathways of primary ductal branching, terminal end bud bifurcation, secondary branching, ductal side-branching and lobuloalveolar formation.
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