The cranial sutures are the primary sites of bone formation during skull growth. Morphogenesis and phenotypic maintenance of the cranial sutures are regulated by tissue interactions, especially those with the underlying dura mater. Removal of the dura mater in fetuses causes abnormal suture development and premature suture obliteration. The dura mater interacts with overlying tissues of the cranial vault by providing: (1) intercellular signals, (2) mechanical signals and (3) cells, which undergo transformation and migrate to the suture. The intercellular signaling governing suture development employs the fibroblast growth factors (FGFs). In rats during formation of the sutures in the fetus, FGF-1 is localized mainly in the dura mater, while other FGFs are expressed in the overlying tissues. By birth, FGF-2 largely replaces FGF-1 in the dura mater. FGFs present in the calvaria bind either the IIIb or IIIc mRNA splice variants of the FGF receptors (FGFRs) 1, 2, or 3. Monoclonal antibodies to the b variant of FGFR2 were used to determine the distribution of FGFR2IIIb during suture development and its extracellular localization. FGFR2IIIb is present in association with mature osteoblasts and osteogenic precursor cells of the suture in the fetus. Ectodomains of FGFR2IIIb, the products of proteolytic cleavage of the receptors, were present throughout the extracellular matrix of sutures resisting obliteration (coronal and sagittal), but absent from the core of sutures undergoing normal fusion (posterior intrafrontal). This observation is consistent with a possible mechanism, in which truncated receptors bind FGFs, thus regulating free FGF available to nearby cells. Mechanical signaling in the calvaria results from tensional forces in the dura mater generated during rapid expansion of the neurocranium. Posterior intrafrontal sutures of rats, which fuse between days 16 and 24, were subjected to cyclical tensional forces in vitro. Significant delay in the timing of suture fusion and increases in the expression domains of FGFR1 and 2 were observed, demonstrating the sensitivity of suture patency to mechanical signals and a possible role of the FGF system in mediating such stimuli. Finally, cells of the dura mater beneath the intrafrontal and sagittal sutures were observed to undergo a morphological transformation to a dendritic morphology and migrate into the suture mesenchyme between days 10 and 16 of development. This process may participate in suture and bone morphogenesis and influence the patency of the sutures along the anterior-posterior axis.

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