Specialized lung cells appear in the developing fetus much earlier than scientists previously thought. A new animal study reports how cells that become alveoli, the tiny compartments in which gas exchange occurs in the lung, begin their specialized roles very early in prenatal life. The research team focused on the basic function of respiration -- the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide within key cells, called alveolar type 1 and type 2 cells. The same research team previously identified a new cell lineage in the lungs of mice and humans, which they called alveolar epithelial progenitor cells. The new research used single-cell RNA sequencing analysis, protein expression studies and a new, lineage-tracing tool to reveal details of early lung formation in a fetal mouse model. The investigators are interested in deciphering the basics of how cells form their identity -- essentially, why a cell becomes a lung cell as opposed to a heart cell. In particular, understanding how the lung forms is critical because many babies born prematurely have poorly formed organs. The researchers say that investigating the fetal signaling pathways active in this biological event may offer future opportunities to treat lung damage caused by prematurity and other lung injuries.
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