The establishment of thresholds along morphogen gradients in the embryo is poorly understood. Using mathematical modeling, we show that mutually inhibitory gradients can generate and position sharp morphogen thresholds in the embryonic space. Taking vertebrate segmentation as a paradigm, we demonstrate that the antagonistic gradients of retinoic acid (RA) and Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF) along the presomitic mesoderm (PSM) may lead to the coexistence of two stable steady states. Here, we propose that this bistability is associated with abrupt switches in the levels of FGF and RA signaling, which permit the synchronized activation of segmentation genes, such as mesp2, in successive cohorts of PSM cells in response to the segmentation clock, thereby defining the future segments. Bistability resulting from mutual inhibition of RA and FGF provides a molecular mechanism for the all-or-none transitions assumed in the "clock and wavefront" somitogenesis model. Given that mutually antagonistic signaling gradients are common in development, such bistable switches could represent an important principle underlying embryonic patterning.
Copyright 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.