To visually and genetically trace single-cell dynamics of human prostate cancer (PCa) cells at the early stage of metastasis, a zebrafish (ZF) xenograft model was employed. The phenotypes of intravenously transplanted fluorescent cells were monitored by high-resolution, single-cell intravital confocal and light-sheet imaging. Engrafted osteotropic, androgen independent PCa cells were extravasated from caudle vein, invaded the neighboring tissue, proliferated and formed experimental metastases around caudal hematopoietic tissue (CHT) in four days. Gene expression comparison between cells in culture and in CHT revealed that engrafted PCa cells responded to the ZF microenvironment by elevating expression of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) and stemness markers. Next, metastatic potentials of ALDHhi
cancer stem-like cells (CSCs) and ALDHlow
non-CSCs were analyzed in ZF. Engraftment of CSCs induced faster metastatic onset, however after six days both cell subpopulations equally responded to the ZF microenvironment, resulting in the same increase of stemness genes expression including Nanog, Oct-4 and Cripto. Knockdown of Cripto significantly reduced the vimentin/E-cadherin ratio in engrafted cells, indicating that Cripto is required for transduction of the microenvironment signals from the ZF niche to increase mesenchymal potential of cells. Targeting of either Cripto or EMT transcriptional factors Snail 1 and Zeb1 significantly suppressed metastatic growth. These data indicated that zebrafish microenvironment governed the CSC/EMT plasticity of human PCa cells promoting metastasis initiation.
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