Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) remains a major respiratory illness in extremely premature infants. The biological mechanisms leading to BPD are not fully understood, although an arrest in lung development has been implicated. The current study aimed to investigate the occurrence of autophagy in the developing mouse lung and its regulatory role in airway branching and terminal sacculi formation. We found 2 windows of epithelial autophagy activation in the developing mouse lung, both resulting from AMPK activation. Inhibition of AMPK-mediated autophagy led to reduced lung branching in vitro. Conditional deletion of beclin 1 (Becn1) in mouse lung epithelial cells (Becn1Epi–KO), either at early (E10.5) or late (E16.5) gestation, resulted in lethal respiratory distress at birth or shortly after. E10.5 Becn1Epi-KO lungs displayed reduced airway branching and sacculi formation accompanied by impaired vascularization, excessive epithelial cell death, reduced mesenchymal thinning of the interstitial walls, and delayed epithelial maturation. E16.5 Becn1Epi-KO lungs had reduced terminal air sac formation and vascularization and delayed distal epithelial differentiation, a pathology similar to that seen in infants with BPD. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that intrinsic autophagy is an important regulator of lung development and morphogenesis and may contribute to the BPD phenotype when impaired.
Associate Scientist, CHEO Research Institute