Morphogens and pattern formation

Bioessays. 1997 Aug;19(8):721-9. doi: 10.1002/bies.950190813.


Morphogen gradient theories have enjoyed considerable popularity since the beginning of this century, but conclusive evidence for a role of morphogens in controlling multicellular development have been elusive. Recently, work on three secreted signalling proteins. Activin in Xenopus, and Wingless and Dpp in Drosophila, has strongly suggested that these proteins function as morphogens. In order to define a factor as a morphogen, it is necessary to show firstly, that it has a direct effect on target cells and secondly, that it affects the development of target cells in a concentration-dependent manner. With these criteria in mind, the evidence available for a variety of proposed morphogens is discussed. While the evidence is not conclusive in most of the cases considered, there is a strong case in favour of the three proteins mentioned above, which suggests that morphogens are potentially of general importance in controlling the development of multicellular organisms.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Activins
  • Animals
  • Body Patterning*
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Drosophila
  • Drosophila Proteins*
  • Embryonic Induction
  • Growth Substances / physiology*
  • Hedgehog Proteins
  • Inhibins / metabolism
  • Insect Proteins / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Morphogenesis
  • Proteins / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism
  • Trans-Activators*
  • Wnt1 Protein
  • Xenopus


  • Drosophila Proteins
  • Growth Substances
  • Hedgehog Proteins
  • Insect Proteins
  • Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Trans-Activators
  • Wnt1 Protein
  • dpp protein, Drosophila
  • wg protein, Drosophila
  • Activins
  • Inhibins