How organs maintain and restore functional integrity during ordinary tissue turnover or following injury represents a central biological problem. The maintenance of taste sensory organs in the tongue was shown 140 years ago to depend on innervation from distant ganglion neurons, but the underlying mechanism has remained unknown. Here, we show that Sonic hedgehog (Shh), which encodes a secreted protein signal, is expressed in these sensory neurons, and that experimental ablation of neuronal Shh expression causes loss of taste receptor cells (TRCs). TRCs are also lost upon pharmacologic blockade of Hedgehog pathway response, accounting for the loss of taste sensation experienced by cancer patients undergoing Hedgehog inhibitor treatment. We find that TRC regeneration following such pharmacologic ablation requires neuronal expression of Shh and can be substantially enhanced by pharmacologic activation of Hedgehog response. Such pharmacologic enhancement of Hedgehog response, however, results in additional TRC formation at many ectopic sites, unlike the site-restricted regeneration specified by the projection pattern of Shh-expressing neurons. Stable regeneration of TRCs thus requires neuronal Shh, illustrating the principle that neuronal delivery of cues such as the Shh signal can pattern distant cellular responses to assure functional integrity during tissue maintenance and regeneration.
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