Embryonic development requires cell movements whose coordination is robust and reproducible. A dramatic example is the primary body axis of vertebrates: despite perturbation, cells in prospective axial tissue coordinate their movements to make an elongated body axis. The spatial cues coordinating these movements are not known. We show here that cells deprived of preexisting spatial cues by physical dissociation and reaggregation nonetheless organize themselves into an axis. Activin-induced cells that are reaggregated into a flat disc initially round up into a ball before elongating perpendicular to the disc. Manipulations of the geometry of the disc and immunofluorescence micrography reveal that the edge of the disc provides a circumferential alignment zone. This finding indicates that physical boundaries provide alignment cues and that circumferential "hoop stress" drives the axial extrusion in a manner resembling late-involuting mesoderm of Xenopus and archenteron elongation in other deuterostome species such as sea urchins. Thus, a population of cells finds its own midline based on the form of the population's boundaries using an edge-aligning mechanism. This process provides a remarkably simple organizing principle that contributes to the reliability of embryonic development as a whole.
(c) 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.