The mammalian inner ear contains the organ of Corti which is responsible for the conversion of sound into neuronal signals. This specialised epithelial tissue is the product of a complex developmental process where a common precursor cell type differentiates into the sound transducing hair cells and the non-innervated supporting cells. We hypothesised that integrin proteins, which are involved in cell attachment to extracellular matrix proteins and cellular signalling, play a role in the differentiation process of the precursor inner ear epithelial cells. To test our hypothesis we have utilised a cell line (OC-2) derived from E13 embryonic immortomouse inner ears. In vitro, by switching the incubation temperature from 33°C to 39°C, the OC-2 cells can be induced to differentiate and express hair cells markers, such as Myosin VIIa. The OC-2 cells are thus a useful model system for testing mechanism of hair cells differentiation.
We have identified 4 integrin subunits which are expressed in OC-2 cells: α6, αv, β1 and β3. Among these, the relative level of expression of the αv, β1 and β3 subunits increased in a time dependent manner when the cells were exposed to the differentiating temperature of 39°C, most notably so for β3 which was not detectable at 33°C. Treatment of fully differentiated OC-2 cells with siRNA against the four integrin subunits reduced the expression of not only the respective integrin proteins but also of the hair cell marker Myosin VIIa. Conversely over-expression of β3 was sufficient to induce the expression of Myosin VIIa at 33°C.
Our data demonstrate that modulation of integrin expression is associated with the differentiation process of the OC-2 cells. This suggests that the maturation of the organ of Corti, from where OC-2 cells are derived, may also depend on changes of gene expression associated with integrin expression.