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Volume 7 (2007), Pages 1777-1798
Review Article

Origin, Fate, and Function of Epicardium-Derived Cells (EPDCs) in Normal and Abnormal Cardiac Development

1Department of Anatomy and Embryology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
2Virus and Stem Cell Biology Lab., Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

Received 16 July 2007; Revised 20 October 2007; Accepted 23 October 2007

Academic Editor: David L. Tannahill

Copyright © 2007 Heleen Lie-Venema et al.


During heart development, cells of the primary and secondary heart field give rise to the myocardial component of the heart. The neural crest and epicardium provide the heart with a considerable amount of nonmyocardial cells that are indispensable for correct heart development. During the past 2 decades, the importance of epicardium-derived cells (EPDCs) in heart formation became increasingly clear. The epicardium is embryologically formed by the outgrowth of proepicardial cells over the naked heart tube. Following epithelial-mesenchymal transformation, EPDCs form the subepicardial mesenchyme and subsequently migrate into the myocardium, and differentiate into smooth muscle cells and fibroblasts. They contribute to the media of the coronary arteries, to the atrioventricular valves, and the fibrous heart skeleton. Furthermore, they are important for the myocardial architecture of the ventricular walls and for the induction of Purkinje fiber formation.

Whereas the exact signaling cascades in EPDC migration and function still need to be elucidated, recent research has revealed several factors that are involved in EPDC migration and specialization, and in the cross-talk between EPDCs and other cells during heart development. Among these factors are the Ets transcription factors Ets-1 and Ets-2. New data obtained with lentiviral antisense constructs targeting Ets-1 and Ets-2 specifically in the epicardium indicate that both factors are independently involved in the migratory behavior of EPDCs. Ets-2 seems to be especially important for the migration of EPDCs into the myocardial wall, and to subendocardial positions in the atrioventricular cushions and the trabeculae.

With respect to the clinical importance of correct EPDC development, the relation with coronary arteriogenesis has been noted well before. In this review, we also propose a role for EPDCs in cardiac looping, and emphasize their contribution to the development of the valves and myocardial architecture. Lastly, we focus on the congenital heart anomalies that might be caused primarily by an epicardial developmental defect.