Background: Activin has strong mesoderm-inducing properties in the early Xenopus embryo, and has a long-range signalling activity that activates genes in cells distant from a source in a concentration-dependent way. It has not yet been established what mechanism of signal transmission accounts for this and other examples of long-range signalling in vertebrates. Nor is it known whether activin itself acts on distant cells or whether other kinds of molecules are used for long-range signalling. Here we have used a well characterised model system, involving animal caps of Xenopus blastulae treated with activin or transforming growth factor beta, to analyze some fundamental properties of long-range signalling and of the formation of a morphogen gradient.
Results: We find that cells distant from the source of activin require functional activin receptors to activate Xbrachyury, a result suggesting that activin itself acts directly on distant cells and that other secondary signalling molecules are not required. We also find that the signals can be transmitted across a tissue that cannot respond to it; this argues against a relay process. We provide direct evidence that labelled activin forms a concentration gradient emanating from its source and extending to the distant cells that express Xbrachyury. Lastly, we show that there is no inherent polarity in the responding tissue that influences either the direction or rate of signalling.
Conclusions: The long-range signalling mechanism by which activin initiates the transcription of genes in a concentration-dependent manner depends on a process of rapid diffusion and the establishment of an activin gradient across the tissue. It cannot be explained by a relay or wave propagation mechanism. Activin itself is the signalling molecule to which distant cells respond.