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Understanding how kidneys are built

A gradient of β-catenin activity determines the patterning of the basic building blocks of the kidney: nephrons.

Labelling and imaging technologies used to visualise developing nephrons
Labelling and imaging technologies used to visualise developing nephrons. Source: eLife 2015;4:e04000 doi: 10.7554/eLife.04000

The function of the kidney, in both humans and other animals, is to regulate the amount of water and salt in the body, and to filter water to remove waste. The parts of the kidney which perform this function are called nephrons.

For different organs and tissues to develop from stem cells, various different molecular communication pathways must be activated. These signals tell the stem cells what type of tissue or organ they must become.

Peter Hohenstein and colleagues have shown that a gradient of β-catenin activity determines the patterning of the basic building blocks of the kidney, nephrons. By modifying β-catenin activity and observing the development of nephrons in real-time using time-lapse microscopy, the authors showed that different levels of β-catenin are required to instruct cells to form the different segments of the nephron. Given that disruption of any segment of the nephron affects its function and leads to a range of pathological features, from abnormal water and salt loss to high blood pressure, understanding the signalling pathways that regulate the formation of functional nephrons is key to developing therapeutic strategies for people with kidney failure.

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