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The endocardium is the endothelial component of the vertebrate heart and plays a key role in heart development. Cardiac progenitor cells (CPCs) that express the homeobox gene Nkx2-5 give rise to the endocardium. Where, when, and how the endocardium segregates during embryogenesis have remained largely unknown, however. We now show that Nkx2-5+ CPCs that express the Sry-type HMG box gene Sox17 specifically differentiate into the endocardium in mouse embryos. Approximately 20% to 30% of Nkx2-5+ CPCs transiently express Sox17 from embryonic day (E) 7.5 to E8.5. Although Sox17 is not essential or sufficient for endocardium fate, it can bias the fate of CPCs toward the endocardium. On the other hand, Sox17 expression in the endocardium is required for heart development. Deletion of Sox17 specifically in the mesoderm markedly impaired endocardium development with regard to cell proliferation and behavior. The proliferation of cardiomyocytes, ventricular trabeculation, and myocardium thickening were also impaired in a non-cell-autonomous manner in the Sox17 mutant, resulting in anomalous morphology of the heart, likely as a consequence of down-regulation of NOTCH signaling. Changes in gene expression profile in both the endocardium and myocardium preceded the reduction in NOTCH-related gene expression in the mutant embryos, suggesting that Sox17 expression in the endocardium regulates an unknown signal required for nurturing of the myocardium. Our results thus provide insight into differentiation of the endocardium and its role in heart development.

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