Vitamin A (retinol) is essential for epithelial cell growth, differentiation and proliferation. The absorption of retinol occurs in the small intestine, and the metabolism of this vitamin is not well studied in this organ. The intestinal epithelium has a high rate of cell proliferation and differentiation, and the present study looked at the level of retinoids and metabolizing enzymes involved in their interconversion along the villus–crypt axis under normal conditions. Intestine was removed from control rats, and enterocytes at various stages of maturation and differentiation were quantified by the metal chelation method. Using HPLC, various retinoid concentrations in the cell homogenate and the metabolizing enzymes in the cytosol were quantified. The proliferating crypt cells were found to have a higher level of retinoic acid as well as of the enzymes involved in its formation, such as retinaldehyde oxidase and retinol dehydrogenase, compared with the villus cells, suggesting a possible role for this compound in intestinal epithelial cell proliferation and differentiation. The high level of retinol and high retinaldehyde reductase activity in the villus cells suggest the important role played by this enzyme in the conversion of dietary β-carotene to retinol via retinaldehyde. In summary, this study has given for the first time a detailed analysis of the retinoid levels and metabolizing enzymes in different cell populations in the rat small intestinal epithelium.
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