To study the differentiation of hepatocytes along the biliary epithelial lineage in vivo, embryonic day 14 (E14) rat hepatocytes were isolated by differential centrifugation and transplanted as single-cell suspensions into the spleen of adult syngeneic rats. Hepatocytes and cholangiocytes were identified and their maturation characterized by the level of expression of α-fetoprotein (AFP), glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH), and carbamoyl phosphate synthetase I (CPS); annexin IV, annexin V, cytokeratin 19 (CK-19), and cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR); and electron microscopy. By correlating morphologic changes with the timing in the expression of these markers, we show that the organization of the transplanted E14 hepatocytes into lobular structures is accompanied by the formation and maturation of bile ducts around these developing lobules. Morphologic differentiation of the emerging bile ducts was accompanied by a gradual loss of hepatocyte markers and a gradual acquisition of cholangiocyte markers, with markers identifying a large-cholangiocyte phenotype appearing latest. Once fully differentiated, the intrasplenic liver lobules developed cholestatic features. The accompanying proliferation of bile ducts was due to cholangiocyte proliferation, but ductular transformation of hepatocytes was also observed. In conclusion, (1) bile duct formation at the interface between hepatocytes and connective tissue is an inherent component of liver development and (2) the susceptibility of developing hepatocytes to bile duct-inducing signals is highest in the fetal liver but that (3) this capacity is not irreversibly lost in otherwise mature hepatocytes.
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