Background: During somitogenesis, segmental patterns of gene activity provide the instructions by which mesenchymal cells epithelialize and form somites. Various members of the Eph family of transmembrane receptor tyrosine kinases and their Ephrin ligands are expressed in a segmental pattern in the rostral presomitic mesoderm. This pattern establishes a receptor/ligand interface at each site of somite furrow formation. In the fused somites (fss/tbx24) mutant, lack of intersomitic boundaries and epithelial somites is accompanied by a lack of Eph receptor/Ephrin signaling interfaces. These observations suggest a role for Eph/Ephrin signaling in the regulation of somite epithelialization.
Results: We show that restoration of Eph/Ephrin signaling in the paraxial mesoderm of fss mutants rescues most aspects of somite morphogenesis. First, restoration of bidirectional or unidirectional EphA4/Ephrin signaling results in the formation and maintenance of morphologically distinct boundaries. Second, activation of EphA4 leads to the cell-autonomous acquisition of a columnar morphology and apical redistribution of beta-catenin, aspects of epithelialization characteristic of cells at somite boundaries. Third, activation of EphA4 leads to nonautonomous acquisition of columnar morphology and polarized relocalization of the centrosome and nucleus in cells on the opposite side of the forming boundary. These nonautonomous aspects of epithelialization may involve interplay of EphA4 with other intercellular signaling molecules.
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that Eph/Ephrin signaling is an important component of the molecular mechanisms driving somite morphogenesis. We propose a new role for Eph receptors and Ephrins as intercellular signaling molecules that establish cell polarity during mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition of the paraxial mesoderm.