The morphogenesis of the vertebrate skull results from highly dynamic integrated processes involving the exchange of signals between the ectoderm, the endoderm, and cephalic neural crest cells (CNCCs). Before migration CNCCs are not committed to form any specific skull element, molecular signals exchanged in restricted regions of tissue interaction are crucial in providing positional identity to the CNCCs mesenchyme and activate the specific morphogenetic process of different skeletal components of the head. In particular, the endothelin-1 (Edn1)-dependent activation of Dlx5 and Dlx6 in CNCCs that colonize the first pharyngeal arch (PA1) is necessary and sufficient to specify maxillo-mandibular identity. Here, to better analyze the spatio-temporal dynamics of this process, we associate quantitative gene expression analysis with detailed examination of skeletal phenotypes resulting from combined allelic reduction of Edn1, Dlx5, and Dlx6. We show that Edn1-dependent and -independent regulatory pathways act at different developmental times in distinct regions of PA1. The Edn1-->Dlx5/6-->Hand2 pathway is already active at E9.5 during early stages of CNCCs colonization. At later stages (E10.5) the scenario is more complex: we propose a model in which PA1 is subdivided into four adjacent territories in which distinct regulations are taking place. This new developmental model may provide a conceptual framework to interpret the craniofacial malformations present in several mouse mutants and in human first arch syndromes. More in general, our findings emphasize the importance of quantitative gene expression in the fine control of morphogenetic events.
2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.