Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is one of the pivotal proangiogenic growth factors that has long contributed to our knowledge of blood vessel and circulatory maintenance as well as angiogenesis in both pathology and pathophysiology. However, the non-canonical functions of VEGF in cardiac morphogenesis have not been well characterized. Here, we examined how VEGF regulates cardiomyocyte cell fate.
Using chimeric embryos harboring both wild type and VEGF-null embryonic stem cells, we observed that derivatives of VEGF null cells were preferentially recruited to the atrium of the heart in comparison to the ventricles. To further provide physiologic context of this finding, we used reporter-LacZ staining and RT-PCR and found that endogenous VEGF was indeed expressed at much lower levels in the atrium but highly expressed in the ventricle early in cardiac morphogenesis. These data lead to our hypothesis that cell-autonomous expression of VEGF is a determinant of atrial vs. ventricular cardiomyocyte cell fate. To test this hypothesis, we used a VEGF knock-in mouse model of Sm22Cre x Rosa 26 VEGF. VEGF overexpression in cardiomyocytes (and smooth muscle) at E8.5 resulted in lethality by P1 and thickened atrial and ventricular walls in mutant embryos as characterized by histology (H&E, IF). We further explored the molecular changes underlying this phenotype via microarray and RT-PCR and find disruptions in molecular markers necessary for wall development, specifically: Notch-1, BMP10, Nrg-1.
Taken together, our data indicates that aberrant embryonic VEGF signaling disrupts several critical signaling pathways and that overexpression leads to disruption of cardiomyocyte proliferation and cardiac morphogenesis. These findings add to the foundation of better understanding heart development, laying the groundwork for future therapy of congenital and acquired cardiac disease.