Research Article

Notch ligand Dll1 mediates cross-talk between mammary stem cells and the macrophageal niche

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Science  29 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6396, eaan4153
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan4153

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Cross-talk in the mammary gland

Macrophages engulf damaged and dead cells to clear infection, but they also participate in tissue regeneration. Chakrabarti et al. expand the macrophage repertoire for mammary gland development (see the Perspective by Kannan and Eaves). Mammary gland stem cells secrete the Notch ligand Dll1 and activate Notch signaling, which promotes survival of adjacent macrophages. This stimulates production of Wnt ligands, which signal back to the mammary gland stem cells. This cross-talk plays an important role in coordinating mammary gland development, tissue homeostasis, and, not least, breast cancer.

Science, this issue p. eaan4153; see also p. 1401

Structured Abstract


The stem cell niche plays a crucial role in regulating key stem cell properties, including self-renewal, differentiation, and cell fate change. Although stem cell niches in several organs have been well described, the cellular and molecular characteristics of the mammary gland stem cell (MaSC) niche remain largely underexplored. Stromal cell populations—including fibroblasts, macrophages, and other immune cells—are important for mammary gland development and have been implicated in MaSC niche function. However, the signaling mechanisms driving mammary stromal cell–dependent regulation of MaSC activity remain elusive. Insight into the cross-talk between MaSCs and the niche cells is important for understanding both normal tissue homeostasis and disease conditions such as breast cancer.


Notch signaling is broadly involved in cell fate regulation during development. Although Notch receptors have been implicated in various aspects of mammary gland development, the role of Notch ligands in MaSC regulation is less clear. In this study, we focus on the Notch ligand Dll1, which is highly expressed in MaSC-enriched mammary epithelial cell (MEC) populations. Conditional knockout (cKO) of Dll1 in MECs resulted in a significant delay in branching morphogenesis during mammary gland development and a deficiency in alveoli formation during pregnancy and lactation, suggesting a key role of Dll1-mediated pathways in mammary gland development.


We found that Dll1cKO mice have a reduced number of MaSCs at different stages of mammary gland development in virgin and pregnant animals. Furthermore, using Dll1 reporter mice, we found that Dll1 expression is enriched in MaSCs, and Dll1+ MaSCs have a greater regenerative potential than Dll1 MaSCs. Lineage tracing with Dll1-Cre-ERT2;dTomato reporter mice revealed that Dll1+ cells can produce both basal and luminal cells. Dll1cKO mice exhibit a significant reduction in the number of mammary gland macrophages. The mammary macrophages have molecular features, including enrichment of Wnt and Notch signaling pathway components, that are distinct from those of macrophages in other tissue. Dll1 binds to Notch2 and Notch3 on mammary macrophages to activate Notch signaling, which is necessary to sustain macrophage numbers in the niche and their MaSC-promoting activity. Using a MaSC-macrophage coculture system, we also showed that MaSC-derived Dll1 induces expression of Wnt ligands—such as Wnt3, Wnt10, and Wnt16—from macrophages, and these ligands feed back to MaSCs to promote their stem cell activities. In vivo experiments involving genetic and pharmacological depletion of macrophages, as well as macrophage-specific deficiency of Notch signaling, further validated the crucial role of mammary macrophages in sustaining MaSC activity.


We identified Notch ligand Dll1 as a marker that is enriched in MaSCs and demonstrated that Dll1+ MaSCs can generate both basal and luminal cells. Our study establishes macrophages as important cellular components of the MaSC niche through intercellular coupling of Notch and Wnt signaling. Dll1 produced from MaSCs activates Notch signaling in macrophages to sustain their numbers and enhance the expression of Wnt ligands, which in turn supports Wnt signaling in MaSCs to maintain stem cell activity. Our study defines a Dll1-mediated MaSC niche in which the survival and function of MaSCs and stromal macrophages are mutually regulated by cross-talk between the two cell types through Notch and Wnt signaling.

Dll1+ MaSCs interact with mammary macrophages through Notch and Wnt signaling.

Dll1 conditional knockout (Dll1cKO) mice display delayed ductal growth compared with wild-type (WT) mice (compare lower and upper left). In mouse mammary glands (upper right), F4/80+ macrophages (brown) are in close proximity to basal MECs. In the schematic model (lower right), Dll1 in MaSCs (pink) activates Notch signaling in macrophages, increasing their production of Wnt ligands, which in turn promote MaSC activity.


The stem cell niche is a specialized environment that dictates stem cell function during development and homeostasis. We show that Dll1, a Notch pathway ligand, is enriched in mammary gland stem cells (MaSCs) and mediates critical interactions with stromal macrophages in the surrounding niche in mouse models. Conditional deletion of Dll1 reduced the number of MaSCs and impaired ductal morphogenesis in the mammary gland. Moreover, MaSC-expressed Dll1 activates Notch signaling in stromal macrophages, increasing their expression of Wnt family ligands such as Wnt3, Wnt10A, and Wnt16, thereby initiating a feedback loop that promotes the function of Dll1-expressing MaSCs. Together, these findings reveal functionally important cross-talk between MaSCs and their macrophageal niche through Dll1-mediated Notch signaling.

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