One of the most striking features of the human vertebral column is its periodic organization along the anterior-posterior axis. This pattern is established when segments of vertebrates, called somites, bud off at a defined pace from the anterior tip of the embryo's presomitic mesoderm (PSM). To trigger this rhythmic production of somites, three major signaling pathways--Notch, Wnt/β-catenin, and fibroblast growth factor (FGF)--integrate into a molecular network that generates a traveling wave of gene expression along the embryonic axis, called the "segmentation clock." Recent systems approaches have begun identifying specific signaling circuits within the network that set the pace of the oscillations, synchronize gene expression cycles in neighboring cells, and contribute to the robustness and bilateral symmetry of somite formation. These findings establish a new model for vertebrate segmentation and provide a conceptual framework to explain human diseases of the spine, such as congenital scoliosis.
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