Sensory hair cells in the ear and lateral line have an asymmetrical hair-bundle structure, essential for their function as directional mechanotransducers. We examine four questions: (1) how does the planar asymmetry of the individual hair cell originate? (2) How are the orientations of neighboring hair cells coordinated? (3) How is the orientation of a group of hair cells controlled in relation to the ear as a whole? (4) How does the initial cell asymmetry lead to creation of the asymmetrical hair bundle? Studies of the development of hairs and bristles in Drosophila, combined with genetic data from vertebrates, suggest that the answer to questions (1) and (2) lies in asymmetries that develop at the cell cortex and at cell-cell junctions, generated by products of a set of primary planar cell polarity genes, including the transmembrane receptor Frizzled. A separate and largely independent mechanism controls asymmmetric allocation of cell fate determinants such as Numb at mitosis, in Drosophila and possibly in the ear also. Little is known about long-range signals that might orient hair cells globally in the ear, but progress has been made in identifying a set of genes responsible for read-out of the primary polarity specification. These genes, in flies and vertebrates, provide a link to assembly of the polarized cytoskeleton; myosin VIIA appears to belong in this group. The mechanism creating the staircase pattern of stereocilium lengths is unknown, but could involve regulation of stereocilium growth by Ca(2+) ions entering via transduction channels.
Copyright 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.