Human gastrointestinal mucosa regenerates vigorously throughout life, but the factors controlling cell fate in mature mucosa are poorly understood. GATA transcription factors direct cell proliferation and differentiation in many organs, and are implicated in tumorigenesis. GATA-4 and GATA-6 are considered crucial for the formation of murine gastrointestinal mucosa, but their role in human gastrointestinal tract remains unexplored. We studied in detail the expression patterns of these two GATA factors and a GATA-6 down-stream target, Indian hedgehog (Ihh), in normal human gastrointestinal mucosa. Since these factors are considered important for proliferation and differentiation, we also explored the possible alterations in their expression in gastrointestinal neoplasias. The expression of the carcinogenesis-related protein Indian hedgehog was also investigated in comparison to GATA factors.
Samples of normal and neoplastic gastrointestinal tract from children and adults were subjected to RNA in situ hybridization with 33P labelled probes and immunohistochemistry, using an avidin-biotin immunoperoxidase system. The pathological tissues examined included samples of chronic and atrophic gastritis as well as adenomas and adenocarcinomas of the colon and rectum.
GATA-4 was abundant in the differentiated epithelial cells of the proximal parts of the gastrointestinal tract but was absent from the distal parts. In contrast, GATA-6 was expressed throughout the gastrointestinal epithelium, and in the distal gut its expression was most intense at the bottom of the crypts, i.e. cells with proliferative capacity. Both factors were also present in Barrett's esophagus and metaplasia of the stomach. GATA-6 expression was reduced in colon carcinoma. Ihh expression overlapped with that of GATA-6 especially in benign gastrointestinal neoplasias.
The results suggest differential but overlapping functions for GATA-4 and GATA-6 in the normal gastrointestinal mucosa. Furthermore, GATA-4, GATA-6 and Ihh expression is altered in premalignant dysplastic lesions and reduced in overt cancer.