Ultra-structural identification of interstitial cells of Cajal in the zebrafish Danio rerio
The distribution and ultrastructure of the interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) has been examined in the small intestine of the frog Xenopus laevis, as the physiological significance of these cells remains obscure in amphibians and other lower vertebrates. The present study has revealed the existence of a special type of interstitial cell in the tunica muscularis of the small intestine of Xenopus; this cell is characterized by the presence of numerous caveolae, many small mitochondria, and the formation of intercellular connections with the same type of cell. Since these ultrastructural features are shared with mammalian ICC, the cells in the small intestine of Xenopus probably correspond to ICC. These cells also form close contacts with neighboring smooth muscle cells and with nerve varicosities containing accumulations of synaptic vesicles. These cellular networks are likely to be involved in the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle cells, as has been suggested for mammalian tissues. However, true gap junctions have not been detected; they occur neither between the same type of cells nor between the putative ICC and smooth muscle cells. The widespread distribution of ICC or equivalent cells in different groups of vertebrates, together with the conservation of their ultrastructural features, suggests that they differentiated early in vertebrate evolution to play key regulatory roles in gastrointestinal movement.