Dynamics and precision in retinoic acid morphogen gradients

Curr Opin Genet Dev. 2012 Dec;22(6):562-9. doi: 10.1016/j.gde.2012.11.012. Epub 2012 Dec 19.


Retinoic acid (RA) regulates many cellular behaviors during embryonic development and adult homeostasis. Like other morphogens, RA forms gradients through the use of localized sources and sinks, feedback, and interactions with other signals; this has been particularly well studied in the context of hindbrain segmentation in vertebrate embryos. Yet, as a small lipophilic molecule derived from a dietary source-vitamin A-RA differs markedly from better-studied polypeptide morphogens in its mechanisms of transport, signaling, and removal. Computational models suggest that the distinctive features of RA gradients make them particularly robust to large perturbations. Such features include combined positive and negative feedback effects via intracellular fatty acid binding proteins and RA-degrading enzymes. Here, we discuss how these features, together with feedback interactions among RA target genes, help enable RA to specify multiple, accurate pattern elements in the developing hindbrain, despite operating in an environment of high cellular and biochemical uncertainty and noise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Communication
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Morphogenesis
  • Rhombencephalon / cytology
  • Rhombencephalon / growth & development*
  • Rhombencephalon / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tretinoin / metabolism*
  • Vertebrates / embryology*


  • Tretinoin