A molecular atlas of the developing ectoderm defines neural, neural crest, placode, and nonneural progenitor identity in vertebrates

PLoS Biol. 2017 Oct 19;15(10):e2004045. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2004045. eCollection 2017 Oct.


During vertebrate neurulation, the embryonic ectoderm is patterned into lineage progenitors for neural plate, neural crest, placodes and epidermis. Here, we use Xenopus laevis embryos to analyze the spatial and temporal transcriptome of distinct ectodermal domains in the course of neurulation, during the establishment of cell lineages. In order to define the transcriptome of small groups of cells from a single germ layer and to retain spatial information, dorsal and ventral ectoderm was subdivided along the anterior-posterior and medial-lateral axes by microdissections. Principal component analysis on the transcriptomes of these ectoderm fragments primarily identifies embryonic axes and temporal dynamics. This provides a genetic code to define positional information of any ectoderm sample along the anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral axes directly from its transcriptome. In parallel, we use nonnegative matrix factorization to predict enhanced gene expression maps onto early and mid-neurula embryos, and specific signatures for each ectoderm area. The clustering of spatial and temporal datasets allowed detection of multiple biologically relevant groups (e.g., Wnt signaling, neural crest development, sensory placode specification, ciliogenesis, germ layer specification). We provide an interactive network interface, EctoMap, for exploring synexpression relationships among genes expressed in the neurula, and suggest several strategies to use this comprehensive dataset to address questions in developmental biology as well as stem cell or cancer research.

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Ectoderm / embryology*
  • Ectoderm / metabolism
  • Gastrulation / genetics
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Gene Ontology
  • Gene Regulatory Networks
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Microdissection
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neural Crest / embryology*
  • Neural Crest / metabolism
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurulation / genetics
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Time Factors
  • Transcriptome / genetics
  • Wnt Proteins / metabolism
  • Xenopus laevis / embryology*
  • Xenopus laevis / genetics


  • Wnt Proteins