Background: Endoderm organ primordia become specified between gastrulation and gut tube folding in Amniotes. Although the requirement for RA signaling for the development of a few individual endoderm organs has been established a systematic assessment of its activity along the entire antero-posterior axis has not been performed in this germ layer.
Methodology/principal findings: RA is synthesized from gastrulation to somitogenesis in the mesoderm that is close to the developing gut tube. In the branchial arch region specific levels of RA signaling control organ boundaries. The most anterior endoderm forming the thyroid gland is specified in the absence of RA signaling. Increasing RA in anterior branchial arches results in thyroid primordium repression and the induction of more posterior markers such as branchial arch Hox genes. Conversely reducing RA signaling shifts Hox genes posteriorly in endoderm. These results imply that RA acts as a caudalizing factor in a graded manner in pharyngeal endoderm. Posterior foregut and midgut organ primordia also require RA, but exposing endoderm to additional RA is not sufficient to expand these primordia anteriorly. We show that in chick, in contrast to non-Amniotes, RA signaling is not only necessary during gastrulation, but also throughout gut tube folding during somitogenesis. Our results show that the induction of CdxA, a midgut marker, and pancreas induction require direct RA signaling in endoderm. Moreover, communication between CdxA(+) cells is necessary to maintain CdxA expression, therefore synchronizing the cells of the midgut primordium. We further show that the RA pathway acts synergistically with FGF4 in endoderm patterning rather than mediating FGF4 activity.
Conclusions/significance: Our work establishes that retinoic acid (RA) signaling coordinates the position of different endoderm organs along the antero-posterior axis in chick embryos and could serve as a basis for the differentiation of specific endodermal organs from ES cells.