Unlike nonmammalian vertebrates, mammals cannot convert inner ear cochlear supporting cells (SCs) into sensory hair cells (HCs) after damage, thus causing permanent deafness. Here, we achieved in vivo conversion of two SC subtypes, pillar cells (PCs) and Deiters' cells (DCs), into HCs by inducing targeted expression of Atoh1 at neonatal and juvenile ages using novel mouse models. The conversion only occurred in ~10% of PCs and DCs with ectopic Atoh1 expression and started with reactivation of endogenous Atoh1 followed by expression of 11 HC and synaptic markers, a process that took approximately 3 weeks in vivo. These new HCs resided in the outer HC region, formed stereocilia, contained mechanoelectrical transduction channels, and survived for >2 months in vivo; however, they surprisingly lacked prestin and oncomodulin expression and mature HC morphology. In contrast, adult PCs and DCs no longer responded to ectopic Atoh1 expression, even after outer HC damage. Finally, permanent Atoh1 expression in endogenous HCs did not affect prestin expression but caused cell loss of mature HCs. Together, our results demonstrate that in vivo conversion of PCs and DCs into immature HCs by Atoh1 is age dependent and resembles normal HC development. Therefore, combined expression of Atoh1 with additional factors holds therapeutic promise to convert PCs and DCs into functional HCs in vivo for regenerative purposes.
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