Embryonic development hinges on effective coordination of molecular events across space and time. Waves have recently emerged as constituting an ubiquitous mechanism that ensures rapid spreading of regulatory signals across embryos, as well as reliable control of their patterning, namely, for the emergence of body plan structures. In this article, we review a selection of recent quantitative work on signaling waves and present an overview of the theory of waves. Our aim is to provide a succinct yet comprehensive guiding reference for the theoretical frameworks by which signaling waves can arise in embryos. We start, then, from reaction-diffusion systems, both static and time dependent; move to excitable dynamics; and conclude with systems of coupled oscillators. We link these theoretical models to molecular mechanisms recently elucidated for the control of mitotic waves in early embryos, patterning of the vertebrate body axis, micropattern cultures, and bone regeneration. Our goal is to inspire experimental work that will advance theory in development and connect its predictions to quantitative biological observations.
Keywords: bistable systems; bone regeneration; coupled oscillators; embryonic development; excitable systems; somitogenesis; waves.