Background: One prominent example of segmentation in vertebrate embryos is the subdivision of the paraxial mesoderm into repeating, metameric structures called somites. During this process, cells in the presomitic mesoderm (PSM) are first patterned into segments leading secondarily to differences required for somite morphogenesis such as the formation of segmental boundaries. Recent studies have shown that a segmental pattern is generated in the PSM of Xenopus embryos by genes encoding a Mesp-like bHLH protein called Thylacine 1 and components of the Notch signaling pathway. These genes establish a repeating pattern of gene expression that subdivides cells in the PSM into anterior and posterior half segments, but how this pattern of gene expression leads to segmental boundaries is unknown. Recently, a member of the protocadherin family of cell adhesion molecules, called PAPC, has been shown to be expressed in the PSM of Xenopus embryos in a half segment pattern, suggesting that it could play a role in restricting cell mixing at the anterior segmental boundary.
Results: Here, we examine the expression and function of PAPC during segmentation of the paraxial mesoderm in Xenopus embryos. We show that Thylacine 1 and the Notch pathway establish segment identity one segment prior to the segmental expression of PAPC. Altering segmental identity in embryos by perturbing the activity of Thylacine 1 and the Notch pathway, or by treatment with a protein synthesis inhibitor, cycloheximide, leads to the predicted changes in the segmental expression of PAPC. By disrupting PAPC function in embryos using a putative dominant-negative or an activated form of PAPC, we show that segmental PAPC activity is required for proper somite formation as well as for maintaining segmental gene expression within the PSM.
Conclusions: Segmental expression of PAPC is established in the PSM as a downstream consequence of segmental patterning by Thylacine 1 and the Notch pathway. We propose that PAPC is part of the mechanism that establishes the segmental boundaries between posterior and anterior cells in adjacent segments.