Scientists have identified a protein called Wnt5a that is essential for maintaining a healthy intestinal lining.
Glands in the intestinal lining, called crypts of Lieberkühn, contain stem cells that continually produce other cells that renew the gut lining. They are vulnerable to damage and loss from infection and inflammation.
The study demonstrated that when these glands are lost to injury in mice, the nearest surviving glands expand into the area and create wound channels which contain rapidly dividing stem cells. Cells then migrate to the area from the gut lining to provide Wnt5a, a signalling molecule that stops stem cells from repeatedly dividing and instead eventually subdivide into new crypts.
In a control group of mice without this protein, the wound channels formed but were not able to divide into crypts.