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J Neurobiol. 2005 Sep 15;64(4):324-33.

Mechanisms of morphogen movement.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, United Kingdom.


Morphogens are defined as signaling molecules that are produced locally, yet act directly at a distance to pattern the surrounding field of cells in a concentration-dependent manner. In recent years many laboratories have devoted their attention to how morphogens actually reach distant cells. Several models have been proposed, including diffusion in the extracellular space and planar transcytosis. A combination of genetic, developmental, and cell-biological approaches have been taken to tackle this issue. I will present the models and discuss the types of experiments that have been designed to test them. It stands out that most of the work has been carried out in Drosophila. Morphogens contribute to patterning of the vertebrate nervous system, and the same signaling molecules have recently been shown to play important, possibly instructive, roles in axon guidance. Little, if anything, is known about the movement of morphogens in the context of nervous system development. The long-standing tradition of biophysical studies on diffusion in the brain extracellular space, along with the sophisticated in vitro culture systems developed in neurobiology laboratories, may provide new tools and ideas to test these models in a new context.

(c) 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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