JOURNAL ARTICLE
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Transitions between epithelial and mesenchymal states in development and disease

Buzz Baum, Jeffrey Settleman, Margaret P Quinlan
Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology 2008, 19 (3): 294-308
18343170
The ancestors of modern Metazoa were constructed in large part by the foldings and distortions of two-dimensional sheets of epithelial cells. This changed approximately 600 million years ago with the evolution of mesenchymal cells. These cells arise as the result of epithelial cell delamination through a reprogramming process called an epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) [Shook D, Keller R. Mechanisms, mechanics and function of epithelial-mesenchymal transitions in early development. Mech Dev 2003;120:1351-83; Thiery JP, Sleeman JP. Complex networks orchestrate epithelial-mesenchymal transitions. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2006;7:131-42]. Because mesenchymal cells are free to migrate through the body cavity, the evolution of the mesenchyme opened up new avenues for morphological plasticity, as cells evolved the ability to take up new positions within the embryo and to participate in novel cell-cell interactions; forming new types of internal tissues and organs such as muscle and bone [Thiery JP, Sleeman, JP. Complex networks orchestrate epithelial-mesenchymal transitions. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2006;7:131-42; Hay ED, Zuk A. Transformations between epithelium and mesenchyme: normal, pathological, and experimentally induced. Am J Kidney Dis 1995;26:678-90]. After migrating to a suitable site, mesenchymal cells coalesce and re-polarize to form secondary epithelia, in a so-called mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET). Such switches between mesenchymal and epithelial states are a frequent feature of Metazoan gastrulation [Hay ED, Zuk A. Transformations between epithelium and mesenchyme: normal, pathological, and experimentally induced. Am J Kidney Dis 1995;26:678-90] and the neural crest lineage [Duband JL, Monier F, Delannet M, Newgreen D. Epitheliu-mmesenchyme transition during neural crest development. Acta Anat 1995;154:63-78]. Significantly, however, when hijacked during the development of cancer, the ability of cells to undergo EMT, to leave the primary tumor and to undergo MET at secondary sites can have devastating consequences on the organism, allowing tumor cells derived from epithelia to invade surrounding tissues and spread through the host [Thiery JP, Sleeman JP. Complex networks orchestrate epithelial-mesenchymal transitions. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2006;7:131-42; Hay ED, Zuk A. Transformations between epithelium and mesenchyme: normal, pathological, and experimentally induced. Am J Kidney Dis 1995;26:678-90]. Thus, the molecular and cellular mechanisms underpinning EMT are both an essential feature of Metazoan development and an important area of biomedical research. In this review, we discuss the common molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in EMT in both cases.

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