Smooth muscle: a stiff sculptor of epithelial shapes.
Smooth muscle is increasingly recognized as a key mechanical sculptor of epithelia during embryonic development. Smooth muscle is a mesenchymal tissue that surrounds the epithelia of organs including the gut, blood vessels, lungs, bladder, ureter, uterus, oviduct and epididymis. Smooth muscle is stiffer than its adjacent epithelium and often serves its morphogenetic function by physically constraining the growth of a proliferating epithelial layer. This constraint leads to mechanical instabilities and epithelial morphogenesis through buckling. Smooth muscle stiffness alone, without smooth muscle cell shortening, seems to be sufficient to drive epithelial morphogenesis. Fully understanding the development of organs that use smooth muscle stiffness as a driver of morphogenesis requires investigating how smooth muscle develops, a key aspect of which is distinguishing smooth muscle-like tissues from one another and in culture. This necessitates a comprehensive appreciation of the genetic, anatomical and functional markers that are used to distinguish the different subtypes of smooth muscle (for example, vascular versus visceral) from similar cell types (including myofibroblasts and myoepithelial cells). Here, we review how smooth muscle acts as a mechanical driver of morphogenesis and discuss ways of identifying smooth muscle, which is critical for understanding these morphogenetic events.This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue 'Mechanics of Development'.