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Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2009 Aug;1(2):a001701. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a001701.

Systems biology of the self-regulating morphogenetic gradient of the Xenopus gastrula.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Department of Biological Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1662, USA.


The morphogenetic field concept was proposed by experimental embryologists to account for the self-regulative behavior of embryos. Such fields have remained an abstract concept until the recent identification of their molecular components using a combination of genetics, biochemistry, and theoretical modeling. One of the best studied models of a morphogenetic field is the Dorsal-Ventral (D-V) patterning of the early frog embryo. This patterning system is regulated by the bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) signaling pathway and an intricate network of secreted protein antagonists. This biochemical pathway of interacting proteins functions in the extracellular space to generate a D-V gradient of BMP signaling, which is maintained during extensive morphogenetic movements of cell layers during gastrulation. The D-V field is divided into a dorsal and a ventral center, in regions of low and high BMP signaling respectively, under opposite transcriptional control by BMPs. The robustness of the patterning is assured at two different levels. First, in the extracellular space by secreted BMP antagonists that generate a directional flow of BMP ligands to the ventral side. The flow is driven by the regulated proteolysis of the Chordin inhibitor and by the presence of a molecular sink on the ventral side that concentrates BMP signals. The tolloid metalloproteinases and the Chordin-binding protein Crossveinless-2 (CV2) are key components of this ventral sink. Second, by transcriptional feedback at the cellular level: The dorsal and ventral signaling centers adjust their size and level of BMP signaling by transcriptional feedback. This allows cells on one side of a gastrula containing about 10,000 cells to communicate with cells in the opposite pole of the embryo.

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