In an attempt to elucidate the mechanism(s) through which the functional adrenal cortex is established, we analyzed immunohisto-chemically the expression of various markers for the adrenocortical zones, i.e. the zona glomerulosa (zG), the zona fasciculata (zF), and the zona reticularis (zR), as well as markers for the medulla, and further examined the distribution and behavior of DNA-synthesizing cells in rat adrenal glands during development. The results showed that 1) separation of the cortex and medulla, and the development of functional zonation in the cortex began at around the time of birth, 2) at fetal stages when cortical zonation was not established, DNA-synthesizing cells were found scattered throughout the gland, where they proliferated without significant migration, and 3) after birth in the adrenal cortex with established cortical zonation, DNA-synthesizing cells were localized near the undifferentiated zone between zG and zF, and then they migrated centripetally. Cell death appeared to occur in the innermost portion of the cortex, where many resident macrophages are present. These findings illustrate basic processes underlying adrenal development and suggest that the undifferentiated region is apparently the stem cell zone of the adrenal cortex that maintains the cortical zonation.
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