Calcium handling precedes cardiac differentiation to initiate the first heartbeat
Richard CV Tyser Antonio MA Miranda Chiann-mun Chen Sean M Davidson Shankar Srinivas Paul R Riley
University of Oxford, United Kingdom; University College London and Medical School, United Kingdom; Wellcome Trust, United Kingdom
Published October 11, 2016
Cite as eLife 2016;5:e17113
The mammalian heartbeat is thought to begin just prior to the linear heart tube stage of development. How the initial contractions are established and the downstream consequences of the earliest contractile function on cardiac differentiation and morphogenesis have not been described. Using high-resolution live imaging of mouse embryos, we observed randomly distributed spontaneous asynchronous Ca2+-oscillations (SACOs) in the forming cardiac crescent (stage E7.75) prior to overt beating. Nascent contraction initiated at around E8.0 and was associated with sarcomeric assembly and rapid Ca2+ transients, underpinned by sequential expression of the Na+-Ca2+ exchanger (NCX1) and L-type Ca2+ channel (LTCC). Pharmacological inhibition of NCX1 and LTCC revealed rapid development of Ca2+ handling in the early heart and an essential early role for NCX1 in establishing SACOs through to the initiation of beating. NCX1 blockade impacted on CaMKII signalling to down-regulate cardiac gene expression, leading to impaired differentiation and failed crescent maturation.
The heart is the first organ to form and to begin working in an embryo during pregnancy. It must begin pumping early to supply oxygen and nutrients to the developing embryo. Coordinated contractions of specialised muscle cells in the heart, called cardiomyocytes, generate the force needed to pump blood. The flow of calcium ions into and out of the cardiomyocytes triggers these heartbeats. In addition to triggering heart contractions, calcium ions also act as a messenger that drives changes in which genes are active in the cardiomyocytes and how these cells behave.
Scientists commonly think of the first heartbeat as occurring after a tube-like structure forms in the embryo that will eventually develop into the heart. However, it is not yet clear how the first heartbeat starts or how the initial heartbeats affect further heart development.
Tyser, Miranda et al. now show that the first heartbeat actually occurs much earlier in embryonic development than widely appreciated. In the experiments, videos of live mouse embryos showed that prior to the first heartbeat the flow of calcium ions between different cardiomyocytes is not synchronised. However, as the heart grows these calcium flows become coordinated leading to the first heartbeat. The heartbeats also become faster as the heart grows. Using drugs to block the movement of calcium ions, Tyser, Miranda et al. also show that a protein called NCX1 is required to trigger the calcium flows prior to the first heartbeat. Moreover, the experiments revealed that these early heartbeats help drive the growth of cardiomyocytes and shape the developing heart.
Together, the experiments show that the first heartbeats are essential for normal heart development. Future studies are needed to determine what controls the speed of the first heartbeats, and what organises the calcium flows that trigger the first heartbeat. Such studies may help scientists better understand birth defects of the heart, and may suggest strategies to rebuild hearts that have been damaged by a heart attack or other injury.
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