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Curr Biol. 2004 Jan 6;14(1):R35-45.

Embryonic cleavage cycles: how is a mouse like a fly?

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Department Biochemistry and Biophysics, GH-S372C Genentech Hall, UCSF, San Francisco, CA 94143-2200, USA.


The evolutionary advent of uterine support of embryonic growth in mammals is relatively recent. Nonetheless, striking differences in the earliest steps of embryogenesis make it difficult to draw parallels even with other chordates. We suggest that use of fertilization as a reference point misaligns the earliest stages and masks parallels that are evident when development is aligned at conserved stages surrounding gastrulation. In externally deposited eggs from representatives of all the major phyla, gastrulation is preceded by specialized extremely rapid cleavage cell cycles. Mammals also exhibit remarkably fast cell cycles in close association with gastrulation, but instead of beginning development with these rapid cycles, the mammalian egg first devotes itself to the production of extraembryonic structures. Previous attempts to identify common features of cleavage cycles focused on post-fertilization divisions of the mammalian egg. We propose that comparison to the rapid peri-gastrulation cycles is more appropriate and suggest that these cycles are related by evolutionary descent to the early cleavage stages of embryos such as those of frog and fly. The deferral of events in mammalian embryogenesis might be due to an evolutionary shift in the timing of fertilization.

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