In order to bring you the best possible user experience, this site uses Javascript. If you are seeing this message, it is likely that the Javascript option in your browser is disabled. For optimal viewing of this site, please ensure that Javascript is enabled for your browser.
Did you know that your browser is out of date? To get the best experience using our website we recommend that you upgrade to a newer version. Learn more.

Environmental influences govern cell fate choice of multipotent neural crest cells

Commented by the ESC WG on Development, Anatomy & Pathology

ESC Working Groups
Stem Cells, Cell Cycle, Cell Senescence, Cell Death

During embryonic development, cells from at least four distinct progenitor pools come together to form the heart. Congenital heart disease can result from a failure of this process, particularly if cells from a progenitor pool are abnormal or missing. One of these pools is the cardiac neural crest (CNC). Neural crest cells emigrate from the edge of the neural tube during neurulation, and populate a wide variety of structures within the embryo, differentiating to more than 30 different cell types depending on their final location1. The neural crest was first described in 1850ish, but it was not until the early 1980s that Nicole Le Douarin and collegaues described the derivatives2. The CNC are a subset of these cells that were first described by Margaret Kirby and colleagues3. These cells arise at the level of in the caudal hindbrain, and contribute to the pharyngeal arch arteries, cardiac outflow tract septum and valves. Since the discovery of the neural crest over 150 years ago, one key question has been “how can a single cell type contribute to so many different cell types”. Debate has focussed on whether these cells are totipotent, multipotent or have a pre-determined fate; and how much the local environment of the final destination affects differentiation.

Marianne Bronner and Scott Fraser, working in the late 1980s, used vital dye injection and lineage tracing to provide the first evidence that at least some neural crest cells were multipotent progenitor cells4. Over the past two decades, genetic studies have defined the gene regulatory networks required for: (i) neural crest specification; (ii) epithelial-to-mesenchyme transition; (iii) migration; and (iv) differentiation. Most recently, the advent of single cell transcriptomics has confirmed the genetic conclusions and provided support for the classical germ layer model that neural crest cells first adopt a neuroectoderm fate at specification, and then re-activate multipotency genes as they migrate away from the neural tube5. However, these studies have not shed light on how these multipotent cells “decide” where to migrate to and what sort of cell to differentiate into once they reach their target tissue. Therefore, the Bronner group has re-visited this issue using the latest single cell imaging techniques6.

To follow single cells in vivo, Tang et al used retroviral infection of chick embryos in ovo, followed by photoconversion of single cells. These cells were followed by post hoc clonal analysis or by live imaging. They focussed on examining the difference between two populations of NC (cardiac and posterior vagal) that arise from immediately adjacent portions of the caudal hindbrain, and were thought to always contribute to different tissues. Intriguingly, Tang et al found that cells from the two locations initially migrate at random, with individual cells from different starting locations intermixing rather than being restricted to separate streams. However, once cells enter a stream, specific signalling cues guide the multipotent cells towards specific organs. Thus, for example, some of the “cardiac” NC cells end up in the enteric nervous system. In conclusion, these results suggest that NC cells are indeed a multipotent stem cell population, with signals from the local environment controlling their final location and cell fate.


  1. Prasad MS, Charney RM, García-Castro MI. Specification and formation of the neural crest: Perspectives on lineage segregation. Genesis 57:e23276 (2019).
  2. Ayer-Le Lievre CS, Le Douarin NM. The early development of cranial sensory ganglia and the potentialities of their component cells studied in quail-chick chimeras. Dev Biol 94, 291-310 (1982).
  3. Kirby ML, Gale TF, Stewart DE. Neural crest cells contribute to normal aorticopulmonary septation. Science 220, 220:1059-61 (1983).
  4. Bronner-Fraser M, Fraser SE. Cell lineage analysis reveals multipotency of some avian neural crest cells. Nature 335, 161-164 (1988).
  5. Artinger KB, Monsoro-Burq AH. Neural crest multipotency and specification: power and limits of single cell transcriptomic approaches. Fac Rev, 10, 38 (2021).
  6. Tang W, Li Y, Li A, Bronner ME. Clonal analysis and dynamic imaging identify multipotency of individual Gallus gallus caudal hindbrain neural crest cells toward cardiac and enteric fates. Nat Commun 12, 1894 (2021).
The content of this article reflects the personal opinion of the author/s and is not necessarily the official position of the European Society of Cardiology.

Contact us

ESC Working Group on Development, Anatomy & Pathology

European Society of Cardiology

European Heart House
Les Templiers
2035 Route des Colles
CS 80179 Biot

06903, Sophia Antipolis, FR

Tel: +