Background: During nephron induction, morphogenetic molecules are reciprocally exchanged between epithelial and mesenchymal stem/progenitor cells within the renal stem/progenitor cell niche. That these molecules remain concentrated, it is assumed that both cell populations stand in close contact to each other. However, recently published data illustrate that epithelial and mesenchymal cells are separated by an astonishingly wide interstitial interface. Methods: To gain deeper morphological insights into the spatial distribution of mesenchymal and epithelial stem/progenitor cells, the embryonic zone of neonatal rabbit kidney was fixed either with glutaraldehyde (GA) or in a combination with cupromeronic blue, ruthenium red or tannic acid. Transmission electron microscopy was then performed on exactly orientated sections. Results: Conventional fixation with GA illustrates that epithelial and mesenchymal stem/progenitor cells are separated by a bright but inconspicuously looking interstitial interface. In contrast, fixation of specimens in GA containing cupromeronic blue, ruthenium red or tannic acid elucidates that part of the interstitial interface exhibits a special extracellular matrix extending like woven strands between mesenchymal and epithelial stem/progenitor cells. In parallel, filigree projections from mesenchymal stem/progenitor cells cross the interstitial interface to penetrate the basal lamina of epithelial cells. Fusion of the plasma membranes cannot be observed. Instead, touching mesenchymal cell projections form a cone at the contact site with tunneling nanotubes. Conclusions: The results demonstrate that the contact between mesenchymal and epithelial stem/progenitor cells does not form accidentally but physiologically and appears to belong to a suspected system involved in the exchange of morphogenetic information.

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