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During heart development, epicardial cells residing within the outer layer undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and migrate into the underlying myocardium to support organ growth and morphogenesis. Disruption of epicardial EMT results in embryonic lethality, yet its regulation is poorly understood. Here, we report epicardial EMT within the mesothelial layer of the mouse embryonic heart at ultra-high resolution using scanning electron microscopy combined with immunofluorescence analyses. We identified morphologically active EMT regions that associated with key components of the extracellular matrix, including the basement membrane-associated proteoglycan agrin. Deletion of agrin resulted in impaired EMT and compromised development of the epicardium, accompanied by downregulation of Wilms' tumor 1. Agrin enhanced EMT in human embryonic stem cell-derived epicardial-like cells by decreasing β-catenin and promoting pFAK localization at focal adhesions, and promoted the aggregation of dystroglycan within the Golgi apparatus in murine epicardial cells. Loss of agrin resulted in dispersal of dystroglycan in vivo, disrupting basement membrane integrity and impairing EMT. Our results provide new insights into the role of the extracellular matrix in heart development and implicate agrin as a crucial regulator of epicardial EMT.

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Agrin, Dystroglycan, ECM, EMT, Epicardium, Golgi apparatus, Mouse, WT1