Patterning of the Embryo: The First Spatial Decisions in the Life of a Mouse

Development. 2002 Feb;129(4):815-29.


Although in most species the polarity of the embryo takes its roots from the spatial patterning of the egg, mammals were viewed as an exception. This was because the anteroposterior polarity of the mouse embryo could not be seen until gastrulation, and no developmental cues were known that could define polarity at earlier stages. Why should we now re-consider this view? While mechanisms of axis formation in mammals could, in principle, be unique, the evolutionary conservation of numerous other developmental processes raises the question of why mammals would have evolved a different way or timing of organising their embryonic polarity. Indeed, recent evidence shows that well before the onset of gastrulation, the mouse embryo initiates asymmetric patterns of gene expression in its visceral endoderm. Although this extra-embryonic tissue does not contribute to the body itself, it is involved in axis formation. Other recent work has revealed that spatial distribution of cells in the visceral endoderm can be traced back to polarity present at the blastocyst stage. These insights have raised the possibility that embryonic polarity might also originate early during development of mammalian embryos. Indeed it now appears that there are at least two spatial cues that operate in the mouse egg to shape polarity of the blastocyst. One of these is at the animal pole, which is defined by the site of female meiosis, and another is associated with the position of sperm entry. In this review I discuss these recent findings, which have led to the recognition that mouse embryos initiate development of their polarity at the earliest stages of their life. This novel perspective raises questions about the nature of cellular and molecular mechanisms that could convert developmental cues in the zygote to axes of the blastocyst, and hence into polarity of the post-implantation embryo. It also brings to light the need to understand how such mechanisms could enable early mouse development to be so regulative.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blastocyst / physiology
  • Body Patterning / physiology*
  • Cell Polarity / physiology
  • Embryo Implantation / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mice