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During cardiac development, cells from the precardiac mesoderm fuse to form the primordial heart tube, which then grows by addition of further progenitors to the venous and arterial poles. In the zebrafish, wilms tumor 1 transcription factor a (wt1a) and b (wt1b) are expressed in the pericardial mesoderm at the venous pole of the forming heart tube. The pericardial mesoderm forms a single layered mesothelial sheet that contributes to further the growth of the myocardium, and forms the proepicardium. Proepicardial cells are subsequently transferred to the myocardial surface and give rise to the epicardium, the outer layer covering the myocardium in the adult heart. wt1a/b expression is downregulated during the transition from pericardium to myocardium, but remains high in proepicardial cells. Here we show that sustained wt1 expression impaired cardiomyocyte maturation including sarcomere assembly, ultimately affecting heart morphology and cardiac function. ATAC-seq data analysis of cardiomyocytes overexpressing wt1 revealed that chromatin regions associated with myocardial differentiation genes remain closed upon wt1b overexpression in cardiomyocytes, suggesting that wt1 represses a myocardial differentiation program. Indeed, a subset of wt1a/b-expressing cardiomyocytes changed their cell adhesion properties, delaminated from the myocardial epithelium, and upregulated the expression of epicardial genes, as confirmed by in vivo imaging. Thus, we conclude that wt1 acts as a break for cardiomyocyte differentiation by repressing chromatin opening at specific genomic loci and that sustained ectopic expression of wt1 in cardiomyocytes can lead to their transformation into epicardial cells.

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