Goblet cells are the major mucus-producing cells of the intestine and are presumed to play an important role in mucosal protection. However, their functional role has not been directly assessed in vivo. In initial studies, a 5' flanking sequence of the murine intestinal trefoil factor (ITF) gene was found to confer goblet cell-specific expression of a transgene. To assess the role of goblet cells in the intestine, we generated transgenic mice in which ~60% of goblet cells were ablated by the expression of an attenuated diphtheria toxin [DT) gene driven by the ITF promoter; other cell lineages were unaffected. We administered 2 exogenous agents, dextran sodium sulfate (DSS) and acetic acid, to assess the susceptibility of mITF/DT-A transgenic mice to colonic injury. After oral administration of DSS, 55% of control mice died, whereas DT transgenic mice retained their body weight and less than 5% died. Similarly, 30% of the wild-type mice died after mucosal administration of acetic acid, compared with 3.2% of the transgenic mice. Despite the reduction goblet-cell number, the total amount of ITF was increased in the mITF/DT-A transgenic mice, indicating inducible-compensatory mechanisms. These results suggest that goblet cells contribute to mucosal protection and repair predominantly through production of trefoil peptides.
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