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Phys Biol. 2006 May 16;3(2):107-20.

Embryonic pattern scaling achieved by oppositely directed morphogen gradients.

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  • 1Department of Physics and Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0374, USA.


Morphogens are proteins, often produced in a localized region, whose concentrations spatially demarcate regions of differing gene expression in developing embryos. The boundaries of gene expression are typically sharp and the genes can be viewed as abruptly switching from on to off or vice versa upon crossing the boundary. To ensure the viability of the organism these boundaries must be set at certain fractional positions within the corresponding developing field. Remarkably this can be done with high precision despite the fact that the size of the developing field itself can vary widely from embryo to embryo. How this scaling is accomplished is unknown but it is clear that a single morphogen gradient is insufficient. Here we show how a pair of morphogens A and B, produced at opposite ends of a one-dimensional developing field, can solve the pattern-scaling problem. In the most promising scenario the morphogens interact via an effective annihilation reaction A + B --> slashed circle and the switch occurs according to the absolute concentration of A or B. We define a scaling criterion and show that morphogens coupled in this way can set embryonic markers across the entire developing field in proportion to the field size. This scaling occurs at developing-field sizes of a few times the morphogen decay length. The scaling criterion is not met if instead the gradients couple combinatorially such that downstream genes are regulated by the ratio A/B of the morphogen concentrations.

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