Background: Gradients of inducing molecules, or morphogens, could impose pattern on early embryos. Although there are candidates for morphogens in several systems, it is not well understood how cells might translate differences in extracellular inducer concentration into an orderly arrangement of cell types. With this question in mind, we have re-examined mesodermal patterning in Xenopus in response to the secreted growth factor activin. Previous work has shown that activin can initiate the formation of a variety of mesodermal tissues in a concentration-dependent fashion. We have sought to disentangle the roles played by individual cell responses to activin and subsequent interactions among induced cells in producing this outcome.
Results: We find that the initial response of dispersed cells to activin concentration is unexpectedly simple, showing neither the thresholds of activin concentration nor the distinct domains of gene expression that characterize the later response. The eventual emergence of an ordered series of coherent differentiation steps requires the reaggregation of the induced cells, implying that secondary interactions occur. Furthermore, when cells induced at different doses of activin are mixed, the final response apparently represents a consensus, rather than a mosaic, of the mixed populations.
Conclusions: We conclude that communication among responding cells underlies much of the remarkable patterning influence of activin. Moreover, we suggest that these findings can inform thinking about how inducer gradients might act in other systems, shifting emphasis from the initial response of cells to inducer concentration toward the elaboration of complex pattern by secondary interactions.