The distribution of immunoreactivity for the potent vasoconstrictor endothelin-1 was studied in adult and developing human gut using antisera to endothelin-1 (1-21) and the C terminus of big endothelin-1. The coexistence of these peptides with other neuropeptides was investigated using comparative immunocytochemistry. Endothelin-1 like immunoreactivity was detected in extracts of adult (range 20-60 fmol/g wet weight) and fetal (33 fmol/g) gastrointestinal tract and was shown by chromatography to be the predominant isoform of endothelin present in both. It was localised by immunocytochemistry to ganglion cells in the submucous and myenteric plexuses and to scattered nerves, whereas big endothelin-1 like immunoreactivity was found in the submucous plexus only. Colocalisation studies showed immunoreactivity for both endothelin-1 and vasoactive intestinal peptide in the same ganglion cells of the submucous plexus. Although endothelin-1 immunoreactivity was not detected by immunocytochemistry in the fetal human gut until the 32nd week of gestation, big endothelin-1 was found as early as 11 weeks in the developing neural structures and epithelial cells. The latter were shown to be endocrine cells by their immunoreactivity for chromogranin. Our results indicate that endothelin is a neuropeptide found in adult human gut which shows transient expression in endocrine cells during development.
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