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Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002.

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Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition.

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Universal Mechanisms of Animal Development

There are about ten million species of animals, and they are fantastically varied. One would no more expect the worm, the flea, the eagle and the giant squid all to be generated by the same developmental mechanisms, than one would suppose that the same methods were used to make a shoe and an airplane. Some similar abstract principles might be involved, perhaps, but surely not the same specific molecules?

One of the most astonishing revelations of the past ten or twenty years has been that our initial suspicions are wrong. In fact, much of the basic machinery of development is essentially the same, not just in all vertebrates but in all the major phyla of invertebrates too. Recognizably similar, evolutionarily related molecules define our specialized cell types, mark the differences between body regions, and help create the body's pattern. Homologous proteins are often functionally interchangeable between very different species. A mouse protein produced artificially in a fly can often perform the same function as the fly's own version of that protein, and vice versa, successfully controlling the development of an eye, for example, or the architecture of the brain (Figure 21-2). Thanks to this underlying unity of mechanism, as we shall see, developmental biologists are now well on their way toward a coherent understanding of animal development.

Figure 21-2. Homologous proteins functioning interchangeably in the development of mice and flies.

Figure 21-2

Homologous proteins functioning interchangeably in the development of mice and flies. (A) A fly protein used in a mouse. The DNA sequence from Drosophila coding for the Engrailed protein (a gene regulatory protein) can be substituted for the corresponding (more...)

Plants are a separate kingdom: they have evolved their multicellular organization independently of animals. For their development too, a unified account can be given, but it is different from that for animals. Animals will be our main concern in this chapter, but we shall return to plants briefly at the end.

We begin by reviewing some of the basic general principles of animal development and by introducing the seven animal species that developmental biologists have adopted as their chief model organisms.

Animals Share Some Basic Anatomical Features

The similarities between animal species in the genes that control development reflect the evolution of animals from a common ancestor in which these genes were already present. Although we do not know what it looked like, the common ancestor of worms, molluscs, insects, vertebrates, and other complex animals must have had many differentiated cell types that would be recognizable to us: epidermal cells, for example, forming a protective outer layer; gut cells to absorb nutrients from ingested food; muscle cells to move; neurons and sensory cells to control the movements. The body must have been organized with a sheet of skin covering the exterior, a mouth for feeding and a gut tube to contain and process the food—with muscles, nerves and other tissues arranged in the space between the external sheet of skin and the internal gut tube.

These features are common to almost all animals, and they correspond to a common basic anatomical scheme of development. The egg cell—a giant storehouse of materials—divides, or cleaves, to form many smaller cells. These cohere to create an epithelial sheet facing the external medium. Much of this sheet remains external, constituting the ectoderm—the precursor of the epidermis and of the nervous system. A part of the sheet becomes tucked into the interior to form endoderm—the precursor of the gut and its appendages, such as lung and liver. Another group of cells move into the space between ectoderm and endoderm, and form the mesoderm—the precursor of muscles, connective tissues, and various other components. This transformation of a simple ball or hollow sphere of cells into a structure with a gut is called gastrulation (from the Greek word for a belly), and in one form or another it is an almost universal feature of animal development. Figure 21-3 illustrates the process as it is seen in the sea urchin.

Figure 21-3. Sea urchin gastrulation.

Figure 21-3

Sea urchin gastrulation. A fertilized egg divides to produce a blastula—a hollow sphere of epithelial cells surrounding a cavity. Then, in the process of gastrulation, some of the cells tuck into the interior to form the gut and other internal (more...)

Evolution has diversified upon the molecular and anatomical fundamentals that we describe in this chapter to produce the wonderful variety of present-day species. But the underlying conservation of genes and mechanisms means that studying the development of one animal very often leads to general insights into the development of many other types of animals. As a result, developmental biologists today, like cell biologists, have the luxury of addressing fundamental questions in whatever species offers the easiest path to an answer.

Multicellular Animals Are Enriched in Proteins Mediating Cell Interactions and Gene Regulation

Genome sequencing reveals the extent of molecular similarities between species. The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, the fly Drosophila melanogaster, and the vertebrate Homo sapiens are the first three animals for which a complete genome sequence was obtained. In the family tree of animal evolution, they are very distant from one another: the lineage leading to the vertebrates is thought to have diverged from that leading to the nematodes, insects and molluscs more than 600 million years ago. Nevertheless, when the 19,000 genes of C. elegans, the 14,000 genes of Drosophila, and the 30,000 genes of the human are systematically compared with one another, it is found that about 50% of the genes in each of these species have clearly recognizable homologs in one or both of the other two species. In other words, recognizable versions of at least 50% of all human genes were already present in the common ancestor of worms, flies, and humans.

Of course, not everything is conserved: there are some genes with key roles in vertebrate development that have no homologs in the genome of C. elegans or Drosophila, and vice versa. However, a large proportion of the 50% of genes that lack identifiable homologs in other phyla may do so simply because their functions are of minor importance. Although these nonconserved genes are transcribed and well represented in cDNA libraries, studies of DNA and amino acid sequence variability in and between natural populations indicate that these genes are unusually free to mutate without seriously harming fitness. Because they are free to evolve so rapidly, a few tens of millions of years may be enough to obliterate any family resemblance or to permit loss from the genome.

The genomes of different classes of animals differ also because, as discussed in Chapter 1, there are substantial variations in the extent of gene duplication: the amount of gene duplication in the evolution of the vertebrates has been particularly large, with the result that a mammal or a fish often has several homologs corresponding to a single gene in a worm or a fly.

Despite such differences, to a first approximation we can say that all these animals have a similar set of proteins at their disposal for their key functions. In other words, they construct their bodies using roughly the same molecular kit of parts.

What genes, then, are needed to produce a multicellular animal, beyond those necessary for a solitary cell? Comparison of animal genomes with that of budding yeast—a unicellular eucaryote—suggests that two classes of proteins are especially important for multicellular organization. The first class is that of the transmembrane molecules used for cell adhesion and cell signaling. As many as 2000 C. elegans genes encode cell surface receptors, cell adhesion proteins, and ion channels that are either not present in yeast or present in much smaller numbers. The second class is that of gene regulatory proteins: these DNA-binding proteins are much more numerous in the C. elegans genome than in yeast. For example, the basic helix-loop-helix family has 41 members in C. elegans, 84 in Drosophila, 131 in humans and only 7 in yeast, and other families of regulators of gene expression are also dramatically overrepresented in animals as compared to yeast. Not surprisingly, these two classes of proteins are central to developmental biology: as we shall see, the development of multicellular animals is dominated by cell-cell interactions and by differential gene expression.

Regulatory DNA Defines the Program of Development

The fundamental similarity in the gene sets of different animals amazed developmental biologists when it was first discovered. A worm, a fly, a mollusc and a mammal do indeed share many of the same essential cell types, and they do all have a mouth, a gut, a nervous system and a skin; but beyond a few such basic features they seem radically different in their body structure. If the genome determines the structure of the body and these animals all have such a similar collection of genes, how can they be so different?

The proteins encoded in the genome can be viewed as the components of a construction kit. Many things can be built with this kit, just as a child's construction kit can be used to make trucks, houses, bridges, cranes, and so on by assembling the components in different combinations. Some components necessarily go together—nuts with bolts, wheels with tires and axles—but the large-scale organization of the final object is not defined by these substructures. Rather, it is defined by the instructions that accompany the components and prescribe how they are to be assembled.

To a large extent, the instructions needed to produce a multicellular animal are contained in the non-coding, regulatory DNA that is associated with each gene. As discussed in Chapter 4, each gene in a multicellular organism is associated with thousands or tens of thousands of nucleotides of noncoding DNA. This DNA may contain, scattered within it, dozens of separate regulatory elements or enhancers—short DNA segments that serve as binding sites for specific complexes of gene regulatory proteins. Roughly speaking, as explained in Chapter 7, the presence of a given regulatory module of this sort leads to expression of the gene whenever the complex of proteins recognizing that segment of DNA is appropriately assembled in the cell (in some cases, an inhibition or a more complicated effect on gene expression is produced instead). If we could decipher the full set of regulatory modules associated with a gene, we would understand all the different molecular conditions under which the product of that gene is to be made. This regulatory DNA can therefore be said to define the sequential program of development: the rules for stepping from one state to the next, as the cells proliferate and read their positions in the embryo by reference to their surroundings, switching on new sets of genes according to the activities of the proteins that they currently contain (Figure 21-4).

Figure 21-4. How regulatory DNA defines the succession of gene expression patterns in development.

Figure 21-4

How regulatory DNA defines the succession of gene expression patterns in development. The genomes of organisms A and B code for the same set of proteins but have different regulatory DNA. The two cells in the cartoon start in the same state, expressing (more...)

When we compare animal species with similar body plans—different vertebrates such as a fish, a bird and a mammal, for example—we find that corresponding genes usually have similar sets of regulatory modules: the DNA sequences of many of the individual modules have been well conserved and are recognizably homologous in the different animals. The same is true if we compare different species of nematode worm, or different species of insect. But when we compare vertebrate regulatory regions with those of worm or fly, it is hard to see any such resemblance. The protein-coding sequences are unmistakably similar, but the corresponding regulatory DNA sequences appear very different. This is the expected result if different body plans are produced mainly by changing the program embodied in the regulatory DNA, while retaining most of the same kit of proteins.

Manipulation of the Embryo Reveals the Interactions Between its Cells

Confronted with an adult animal, in all its complexity, how does one begin to analyze the process that brought it into being? The first essential step is to describe the anatomical changes—the patterns of cell division, growth, and movement—that convert the egg into the mature organism. This is the job of descriptive embryology, and it is harder than one might think. To explain development in terms of cell behavior, we need to be able to track the individual cells through all their divisions, transformations, and migrations in the embryo. The foundations of descriptive embryology were laid in the 19th century, but the fine-grained task of cell lineage tracing continues to tax the ingenuity of developmental biologists (Figure 21-5)

Figure 21-5. A cell lineage tracing experiment in the Xenopus embryo.

Figure 21-5

A cell lineage tracing experiment in the Xenopus embryo. Different fluorescent dyes are injected into three cells at an early stage (cells with asterisks at the 32-cell stage), and the embryo is then left to develop for 10 hours before being fixed and (more...)

Given a description, how can one go on to discover the causal mechanisms? Traditionally, experimental embryologists have tried to understand development in terms of the ways in which cells and tissues interact to generate the multicellular structure. Developmental geneticists, meanwhile, have tried to analyze development in terms of the actions of genes. These two approaches are complementary, and they have converged to produce our present understanding.

In experimental embryology, cells and tissues from developing animals are removed, rearranged, transplanted, or grown in isolation, in order to discover how they influence one another. The results are often startling: an early embryo cut in half, for example, may yield two complete and perfectly formed animals or a small piece of tissue transplanted to a new site may reorganize the whole structure of the developing body (Figure 21-6). Observations of this type can be extended and refined to decipher the underlying cell-cell interactions and rules of cell behavior. The experiments are easiest to perform in large embryos that are readily accessible for microsurgery. Thus, the most widely used species have been birds—especially the chick—and amphibians—particularly the African frog Xenopus laevis.

Figure 21-6. Some striking results obtained by experimental embryology.

Figure 21-6

Some striking results obtained by experimental embryology. In (A), an early amphibian embryo is split almost into two parts with a hair loop. In (B), an amphibian embryo at a somewhat later stage receives a graft of a small cluster of cells from another (more...)

Studies of Mutant Animals Identify the Genes That Control Developmental Processes

Developmental genetics begins with the isolation of mutant animals whose development is abnormal. This typically involves a genetic screen, as described in Chapter 8. Parent animals are treated with a chemical mutagen or ionizing radiation to induce mutations in their germ cells, and large numbers of their progeny are examined. Those rare mutant individuals that show some interesting developmental abnormality—altered development of the eye, for example—are picked out for further study. In this way, it is possible to discover genes that are required specifically for the normal development of any chosen feature. By cloning and sequencing a gene found in this way, it is possible to identify its protein product, to investigate how it works, and to begin an analysis of the regulatory DNA that controls its expression.

The genetic approach is easiest in small animals with short generation times that can be grown in the laboratory. The first animal to be studied in this way was the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which will be discussed at length below. But the same approach has been successful in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, the zebrafish, Danio rerio, and the mouse, Mus musculus. Although humans are not intentionally mutagenized, they get screened for abnormalities in enormous numbers through the medical care system. Many mutations have arisen in humans that cause abnormalities compatible with life, and analyses of the affected individuals and of their cells have provided important insights into developmental processes.

A Cell Makes Developmental Decisions Long Before It Shows a Visible Change

By simply watching closely, or with the help of tracer dyes and other cell-marking techniques, one can discover what the fate of a given cell in an embryo will be if that embryo is left to develop normally. The cell may be fated to die, for example, or to become a neuron, to form part of an organ such as the foot, or to give progeny cells scattered all over the body. To know the cell fate, in this sense, however, is to know next to nothing about the cell's intrinsic character. At one extreme, the cell that is fated to become, say, a neuron may be already specialized in a way that guarantees that it will become a neuron no matter how its surroundings are disturbed; such a cell is said to be determined for its fate. At the opposite extreme, the cell may be biochemically identical to other cells destined for other fates, the only difference between them being the accident of position, which exposes the cells to different future influences.

A cell's state of determination can be tested by transplanting it to altered environments (Figure 21-7). One of the key conclusions of experimental embryology has been that, thanks to cell memory, a cell can become determined long before it shows any obvious outward sign of differentiation.

Figure 21-7. The standard test for cell determination.

Figure 21-7

The standard test for cell determination.

Between the extremes of the fully determined and the completely undetermined cell, there is a whole spectrum of possibilities. A cell may, for example, be already somewhat specialized for its normal fate, with a strong tendency to develop in that direction, but still able to change and undergo a different fate if it is put in a sufficiently coercive environment. (Some developmental biologists would describe such a cell as specified or committed, but not yet determined.) Or the cell may be determined, say, as a brain cell, but not yet determined as to whether it is to be a neuronal or a glial component of the brain. And often, it seems, adjacent cells of the same type interact and depend on mutual support to maintain their specialized character, so that they will behave as determined if kept together in a cluster, but not if taken singly and isolated from their usual companions.

Cells Have Remembered Positional Values That Reflect Their Location in the Body

In many systems, long before cells become committed to differentiating as a specific cell type, they become regionally determined: that is, they switch on and maintain expression of genes that can best be regarded as markers of position or region in the body. This position-specific character of a cell is called its positional value, and it shows its effects in the way the cell behaves in subsequent steps of pattern formation.

The development of the chick leg and wing provides a striking example. The leg and the wing of the adult both consist of muscle, bone, skin, and so on—almost exactly the same range of differentiated tissues. The difference between the two limbs lies not in the types of tissues, but in the way in which those tissues are arranged in space. So how does the difference come about?

In the chick embryo the leg and the wing originate at about the same time in the form of small tongue-shaped buds projecting from the flank. The cells in the two pairs of limb buds appear similar and uniformly undifferentiated at first. But a simple experiment shows that this appearance of similarity is deceptive. A small block of undifferentiated tissue at the base of the leg bud, from the region that would normally give rise to part of the thigh, can be cut out and grafted into the tip of the wing bud. Remarkably, the graft forms not the appropriate part of the wing tip, nor a misplaced piece of thigh tissue, but a toe (Figure 21-8). This experiment shows that the early leg-bud cells are already determined as leg but are not yet irrevocably committed to form a particular part of the leg: they can still respond to cues in the wing bud so that they form structures appropriate to the tip of the limb rather than the base. The signaling system that controls the differences between the parts of the limb is apparently the same for leg and wing. The difference between the two limbs results from a difference in the internal states of their cells at the outset of limb development.

Figure 21-8. Prospective thigh tissue grafted into the tip of a chick wing bud forms toes.

Figure 21-8

Prospective thigh tissue grafted into the tip of a chick wing bud forms toes. (After J.W. Saunders et al., Dev. Biol. 1:281–301, 1959.)

The difference of positional value between vertebrate forelimb cells and hindlimb cells appears to be a reflection of differential expression of a class of gene regulatory proteins called T-box (Tbx) proteins. The cells of the hindlimb bud express the Tbx4 gene while those of the forelimb bud express Tbx5, and this is thought to control their subsequent behavior (Figure 21-9). Later in this chapter we shall explain how the next, more detailed level of patterning is set up inside an individual limb bud.

Figure 21-9. Chick embryos at 4 days of incubation, showing the limb buds stained by in situ hybridization with probes to detect expression of the Tbx4 and Tbx5 genes.

Figure 21-9

Chick embryos at 4 days of incubation, showing the limb buds stained by in situ hybridization with probes to detect expression of the Tbx4 and Tbx5 genes. The cells expressing Tbx5 will form a wing; those expressing Tbx4 will form a leg. Tbx4 and Tbx5 (more...)

Sister Cells Can Be Born Different by an Asymmetric Cell Division

At each stage in its development, a cell in an embryo is presented with a limited set of options according to the state it has attained: the cell travels along a developmental pathway that branches repeatedly. At each branch in the pathway it has to make a choice, and its sequence of choices determines its final destiny. In this way, a complicated array of different cell types is produced.

To understand development, we need to know how each choice between options is controlled, and how those options depend on the choices made previously. To reduce the question to its simplest form: how do two cells with the same genome come to be different?

When a cell undergoes mitosis, both of the resulting daughter cells receive a precise copy of the mother cell's genome. Yet those daughters will often have different specialized fates, and, at some point, they or their progeny must acquire different characters.

In some cases, the two sister cells are born different as a result of an asymmetric cell division, in which some significant set of molecules is divided unequally between the two daughter cells at the time of division. This asymmetrically segregated molecule (or set of molecules) then acts as a determinant for one of the cell fates by directly or indirectly altering the pattern of gene expression within the daughter cell that receives it (Figure 21-10).

Figure 21-10. Two ways of making sister cells different.

Figure 21-10

Two ways of making sister cells different.

Asymmetric divisions are particularly common at the beginning of development, when the fertilized egg divides to give daughter cells with different fates, but they also occur at later stages—in the genesis of nerve cells, for example.

Inductive Interactions Can Create Orderly Differences Between Initially Identical Cells

An alternative and by far the commonest way to make cells different is by exposing them to different environments, and the most important environmental cues acting on cells in an embryo are signals from neighboring cells.

In some cases, adjacent initially similar cells exchange signals that drive them to become different from one another, as in a competition between identical twins. A sort of shouting match occurs, from which one cell or group of cells emerges as winner—not only specializing in a particular way but also delivering a signal to neighboring cells that inhibits them from doing likewise—a phenomenon called lateral inhibition (Figure 21-11). Very often, this process is based on an exchange of signals at cell-cell contacts via the Notch pathway (discussed in Chapter 15).

Figure 21-11. Lateral inhibition and cell diversification.

Figure 21-11

Lateral inhibition and cell diversification. Adjacent cells compete to adopt the primary character (blue), by delivering inhibitory signals to one another. At first, all cells in the patch are similar. Any cell that gains an advantage in the competition (more...)

In another strategy, perhaps the widely used of all, a group of cells start out all having the same developmental potential, and a signal from cells outside the group then drives one or more of the members of the group into a different developmental pathway, leading to a changed character. This process is called an inductive interaction. Generally, the signal is limited in time and space so that only a subset of the competent cells—those closest to the source of the signal—take on the induced character (Figure 21-12).

Figure 21-12. Inductive signaling.

Figure 21-12

Inductive signaling.

Some inductive signals are short-range—notably those transmitted via cell-cell contacts; others are long-range, mediated by molecules that can diffuse through the extracellular medium. The group of initially similar cells competent to respond to the signal is sometimes called an equivalence group or a morphogenetic field. It can consist of as few as two cells or as many as thousands, and any number of the total can be induced depending on the amount and distribution of the signal.

In principle, any kind of signal molecule could serve as an inducer. In practice, most of the known inductive events in animal development are governed by just a handful of highly conserved families of signal proteins, which are used over and over again in different contexts. The discovery of this limited vocabulary that cells use for developmental communications has emerged over the last ten or twenty years as one of the great simplifying discoveries of developmental biology. In Table 21-1, we briefly review five major families of signal proteins that serve repeatedly as inducers in animal development. Details of the intracellular mechanisms through which these molecules act are given in Chapter 15.

Table 21-1. Some Signal Proteins That Are Used Over and Over Again as Inducers in Animal Development.

Table 21-1

Some Signal Proteins That Are Used Over and Over Again as Inducers in Animal Development.

The ultimate result of most inductive events is a change in DNA transcription in the responding cell: some genes are turned on and others are turned off. Different signaling molecules activate different kinds of gene regulatory proteins. Moreover, the effect of activating a given gene regulatory protein will depend on which other gene regulatory proteins are also present in the cell, since these generally function in combinations. As a result, different types of cells will generally respond differently to the same signal. The response will depend both on the other gene regulatory proteins that are present before the signal arrives—reflecting the cell's memory of signals received previously—and on the other signals that the cell is receiving at the same time.

Morphogens Are Long-Range Inducers That Exert Graded Effects

So far, we have spoken of signal molecules as though they governed a simple yes-no choice: one effect in their presence, another in their absence. In many cases, however, responses are more finely graded: a high concentration may, for example, direct target cells into one developmental pathway, an intermediate concentration into another, and a low concentration into yet another. An important case is that in which the signaling molecule diffuses out from a localized source, creating a signal concentration gradient. Cells at different distances from the source are driven to behave in a variety of different ways, according to the signal concentration that they experience.

A signaling molecule that imposes a pattern on a whole field of cells in this way is called a morphogen. Vertebrate limbs provide a striking example: a specialized group of cells at one side of the embryonic limb bud secrete Sonic hedgehog protein—a member of the Hedgehog family of signal molecules—and this protein spreads out from its source, forming a morphogen gradient that controls the characters of the cells along the thumb-to-little-finger axis of the limb bud. If an additional group of signaling cells is grafted into the opposite side of the bud, a mirror duplication of the pattern of digits is produced (Figure 21-13).

Figure 21-13. Sonic hedgehog as a morphogen in chick limb development.

Figure 21-13

Sonic hedgehog as a morphogen in chick limb development. (A) Expression of the Sonic hedgehog gene in a 4-day chick embryo, shown by in situ hybridization (dorsal view of the trunk at the level of the wing buds). The gene is expressed in the midline of (more...)

Extracellular Inhibitors of Signal Molecules Shape the Response to the Inducer

Especially for molecules that can act at a distance, it is important to limit the action of the signal, as well as to produce it. Most developmental signal proteins have extracellular antagonists that can inhibit their function. These antagonists are generally proteins that bind to the signal or its receptor, preventing a productive interaction from taking place.

A surprisingly large number of developmental decisions are actually regulated by inhibitors rather than by the primary signal molecule. The nervous system in a frog embryo arises from a field of cells that is competent to form either neural or epidermal tissue. An inducing tissue releases the protein chordin, which favors the formation of neural tissue. Chordin does not have its own receptor. Instead it is an inhibitor of signal proteins of the BMP/TGFβ family, which induce epidermal development and are present throughout the neuroepithelial region where neurons and epidermis form. The induction of neural tissue is thus due to an inhibitory gradient of an antagonistic signal (Figure 21-14).

Figure 21-14. Two ways to create a morphogen gradient.

Figure 21-14

Two ways to create a morphogen gradient. (A) By localized production of an inducer—a morphogen—that diffuses away from its source, (B) By localized production of an inhibitor that diffuses away from its source and blocks the action of (more...)

Programs That Are Intrinsic to a Cell Often Define the Time-Course of its Development

Signals such as those we have just discussed play a large part in controlling the timing of events in development, but it would be wrong to imagine that every developmental change needs an inductive signal to trigger it. Many of the mechanisms that alter cell character are intrinsic to the cell and require no cue from the cell's surroundings: the cell will step through its developmental program even when kept in a constant environment. There are numerous cases where one might suspect that something of this sort is occurring to control the duration of a developmental process. For example, in a mouse, the neural progenitor cells in the cerebral cortex of the brain carry on dividing and generating neurons for just 11 cell cycles, and in a monkey for approximately 28 cycles, after which they stop. Moreover, different kinds of neurons are generated at different stages in this program, suggesting that as the progenitor cell ages, it changes the specifications that it supplies to the differentiating progeny cells.

It is difficult to prove in the context of the intact embryo that such a course of events is strictly the result of a cell-autonomous timekeeping process, since the cell environment is changing. Experiments on cells in culture, however, give clear-cut evidence. For example, glial progenitor cells isolated from the optic nerve of a 7-day postnatal rat and cultured under constant conditions in an appropriate medium will carry on proliferating for a strictly limited time (corresponding to a maximum of about eight cell division cycles) and then differentiate into oligodendrocytes (the glial cells that form myelin sheaths around axons in the brain), obeying a timetable similar to the one that they would have followed if they had been left in place in the embryo.

Initial Patterns Are Established in Small Fields of Cells and Refined by Sequential Induction as the Embryo Grows

The signals that organize the spatial pattern of an embryo generally act over short distances and govern relatively simple choices. A morphogen, for example, typically acts over a distance of less than 1 mm—an effective range for diffusion—and directs choices between no more than a handful of developmental options for the cells on which it acts. But the organs that eventually develop are much larger and more complex than this.

The cell proliferation that follows the initial specification accounts for the size increase, while the refinement of the initial pattern is explained by a series of local inductions that embroider successive levels of detail on an initially simple sketch. As soon as two sorts of cells are present, one of them can produce a factor that induces a subset of the neighboring cells to specialize in a third way. The third cell type can in turn signal back to the other two cell types nearby, generating a fourth and a fifth cell type, and so on (Figure 21-15).

Figure 21-15. Patterning by sequential induction.

Figure 21-15

Patterning by sequential induction. A series of inductive interactions can generate many types of cells, starting from only a few.

This strategy for generating a progressively more complicated pattern is called sequential induction. It is chiefly through sequential inductions that the body plan of a developing animal, after being first roughed out in miniature, becomes elaborated with finer and finer details as development proceeds.

In the sections that follow, we focus on a small selection of model organisms to see how the principles that we have outlined in this first section operate in practice. We begin with the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.


The obvious changes of cell behavior that we see as a multicellular organism develops are the outward signs of a complex molecular computation, dependent on cell memory, that is taking place inside the cells as they receive and process signals from their neighbours and emit signals in return. The final pattern of differentiated cell types is thus the outcome of a more hidden program of cell specialization—a program played out in the changing patterns of expression of gene regulatory proteins, giving one cell different potentialities from another long before terminal differentiation begins. Developmental biologists seek to decipher the hidden program and to relate it, through genetic and microsurgical experiments, to the signals the cells exchange as they proliferate, interact, and move.

Animals as different as worms, flies, and humans use remarkably similar sets of proteins to control their development, so that what we discover in one organism very often gives insight into the others. A handful of evolutionarily conserved cell-cell signaling pathways are used repeatedly, in different organisms and at different times, to regulate the creation of an organized multicellular pattern. Differences of body plan seem to arise to a large extent from differences in the regulatory DNA associated with each gene. This DNA has a central role in defining the sequential program of development, calling genes into action at specific times and places according to the pattern of gene expression that was present in each cell at the previous developmental stage.

Differences between cells in an embryo arise in various ways. Sister cells can be born different, as a result of an asymmetric cell division. Alternatively, cells that are born similar can become different through a competitive interaction with one another, as in lateral inhibition. Or a group of initially similar cells may receive different exposures to inductive signals from cells outside the group; long-range inducers with graded effects, called morphogens, can organize a complex pattern. Through cell memory, such transient signals can have a lasting effect on the internal state of a cell, causing it, for example, to become determined for specific fate. In these ways, sequences of simple signals acting at different times and places in growing cell arrays give rise to the intricate and varied multicellular organisms that fill the world around us.

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Copyright © 2002, Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and Peter Walter; Copyright © 1983, 1989, 1994, Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James D. Watson .
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