In vertebrates, the lens and retina arise from different embryonic tissues raising the question of how they are aligned to form a functional eye. Neural crest cells are crucial for this process: in their absence, ectopic lenses develop far from the retina. Here we show, using the chick as a model system, that neural crest-derived transforming growth factor-βs activate both Smad3 and canonical Wnt signalling in the adjacent ectoderm to position the lens next to the retina. They do so by controlling Pax6 activity: although Smad3 may inhibit Pax6 protein function, its sustained downregulation requires transcriptional repression by Wnt-initiated β-catenin. We propose that the same neural crest-dependent signalling mechanism is used repeatedly to integrate different components of the eye and suggest a general role for the neural crest in coordinating central and peripheral parts of the sensory nervous system.
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