The extracellular matrix (ECM) is synthesized and secreted by embryonic cells beginning at the earliest stages of development. Our understanding of ECM composition, structure and function has grown considerably in the last several decades and this knowledge has revealed that the extracellular microenvironment is critically important for cell growth, survival, differentiation and morphogenesis. ECM and the cellular receptors that interact with it mediate both physical linkages with the cytoskeleton and the bidirectional flow of information between the extracellular and intracellular compartments. This review considers the range of cell and tissue functions attributed to ECM molecules and summarizes recent findings specific to key developmental processes. The importance of ECM as a dynamic repository for growth factors is highlighted along with more recent studies implicating the 3-dimensional organization and physical properties of the ECM as it relates to cell signaling and the regulation of morphogenetic cell behaviors. Embryonic cell and tissue generated forces and mechanical signals arising from ECM adhesion represent emerging areas of interest in this field.
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