Rapid changes in morphogen concentration control self-organized patterning in human embryonic stem cells

Elife. 2019 Mar 4;8:e40526. doi: 10.7554/eLife.40526.


During embryonic development, diffusible signaling molecules called morphogens are thought to determine cell fates in a concentration-dependent way. Yet, in mammalian embryos, concentrations change rapidly compared to the time for making cell fate decisions. Here, we use human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to address how changing morphogen levels influence differentiation, focusing on how BMP4 and Nodal signaling govern the cell-fate decisions associated with gastrulation. We show that BMP4 response is concentration dependent, but that expression of many Nodal targets depends on rate of concentration change. Moreover, in a self-organized stem cell model for human gastrulation, expression of these genes follows rapid changes in endogenous Nodal signaling. Our study shows a striking contrast between the specific ways ligand dynamics are interpreted by two closely related signaling pathways, highlighting both the subtlety and importance of morphogen dynamics for understanding mammalian embryogenesis and designing optimized protocols for directed stem cell differentiation.

Editorial note: This article has been through an editorial process in which the authors decide how to respond to the issues raised during peer review. The Reviewing Editor's assessment is that all the issues have been addressed (see decision letter).

Keywords: BMP; computational biology; developmental biology; embryonic stem cells; human; morphogen; nodal; self-organization; signaling dynamics; systems biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bone Morphogenetic Protein 4 / metabolism*
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Human Embryonic Stem Cells / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Nodal Protein / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction


  • BMP4 protein, human
  • Bone Morphogenetic Protein 4
  • NODAL protein, human
  • Nodal Protein