Tissue branching morphogenesis requires the hierarchical organization of sprouting cells into leading “tip” and trailing “stalk” cells [1, 2]. During new blood vessel branching (angiogenesis), endothelial tip cells (TCs) lead sprouting vessels, extend filopodia, and migrate in response to gradients of the secreted ligand, vascular endothelial growth factor (Vegf) . In contrast, adjacent stalk cells (SCs) trail TCs, generate the trunk of new vessels, and critically maintain connectivity with parental vessels. Here, we establish that h2.0-like homeobox-1 (Hlx1) determines SC potential, which is critical for angiogenesis during zebrafish development. By combining a novel pharmacological strategy for the manipulation of angiogenic cell behavior in vivo with transcriptomic analyses of sprouting cells, we identify the uniquely sprouting-associated gene, hlx1. Expression of hlx1 is almost entirely restricted to sprouting endothelial cells and is excluded from adjacent nonangiogenic cells. Furthermore, Hlx1 knockdown reveals its essential role in angiogenesis. Importantly, mosaic analyses uncover a cell-autonomous role for Hlx1 in the maintenance of SC identity in sprouting vessels. Hence, Hlx1-mediated maintenance of SC potential regulates angiogenesis, a finding that may have novel implications for sprouting morphogenesis of other tissues.
► Expression of hlx1 is associated with angiogenic cell behavior in vivo ► hlx1 selectively marks sprouting endothelial cells during zebrafish development ► Hlx1 is required for intersegmental vessel angiogenesis in zebrafish embryos ► Hlx1 cell-autonomously maintains endothelial stalk cell potential