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Nodal signalling in the epiblast patterns the early mouse embryo


Shortly after implantation the mouse embryo comprises three tissue layers. The founder tissue of the embryo proper, the epiblast, forms a radially symmetric cup of epithelial cells that grows in close apposition to the extra-embryonic ectoderm and the visceral endoderm. This simple cylindrical structure exhibits a distinct molecular pattern along its proximal–distal axis1. The anterior–posterior axis of the embryo is positioned later by coordinated cell movements that rotate the pre-existing proximal–distal axis2,3,4,5. The transforming growth factor-β family member Nodal is known to be required for formation of the anterior–posterior axis6. Here we show that signals from the epiblast are responsible for the initiation of proximal–distal polarity. Nodal acts to promote posterior cell fates in the epiblast and to maintain molecular pattern in the adjacent extra-embryonic ectoderm. Both of these functions are independent of Smad2. Moreover, Nodal signals from the epiblast also pattern the visceral endoderm by activating the Smad2-dependent pathway required for specification of anterior identity in overlying epiblast cells. Our experiments show that proximal–distal and subsequent anterior–posterior polarity of the pregastrulation embryo result from reciprocal cell–cell interactions between the epiblast and the two extra-embryonic tissues.

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Figure 1: Distinct patterning defects exhibited by epiblast tissue deficient in Nodal or Smad2.
Figure 2: Visceral endoderm deficient in Nodal or Smad2 lacks anterior identity.
Figure 3: Tissue-specific Smad2-dependent and -independent signals regulate Nodal activities in the early embryo.
Figure 4: Temporally and spatially distinct Nodal activities pattern the anterior–posterior (A↔P) axis.


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We thank E. Bikoff, P. Hoodless, R. Dunn and K. Tremblay for helpful discussions and comments on the manuscript; J. Wrana and P. Hoodless for permission to cite unpublished work; and P. Lewko and J. Rocca for animal care. This work was funded by the NIH and supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust (J.B.) and a Charles A. King Trust fellowship (D.P.N.). This paper is dedicated to the memory of Rosa Beddington, our dear friend and colleague, who died on 18 May 2001.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth J. Robertson.

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Brennan, J., Lu, C., Norris, D. et al. Nodal signalling in the epiblast patterns the early mouse embryo. Nature 411, 965–969 (2001).

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