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Patterning of the Mesoderm by Activin
The patterning of the mesoderm may be accomplished by the TGF-beta-family member, activin. Activin proteins appears to be present maternally in the early Xenopus embryo, but their localization and concentrations are not well known. In the early 1990s, activin was seen as possibly playing a major role in patterning the mesoderm. However, support for this model dwindled when activin was not detected in the early embryo at levels significantly high enough to induce mesodermal genes. Recently, activin has come back into prominence because the low levels of activin may have been an isolation artifact. It appears that Xenopus oocytes do not make activin, but absorb it from the blood by pinocytosis. This activin is probably in an inactive complex, bound with both its inhibitor follistatin and with the yolk protein vitellogenin (Fukui et al., 1994; Uchiyama et al., 1994).
The presence of activin in the early embryo is extremely important, since activin is known to induce different genes and different structures at different doses. When added to animal cap blastomeres (which would normally become ectoderm), low levels of activin induce these cells to become coelomic epithelium and blood cells. Higher doses of activin induce the animal cap to become muscle tissue, and still higher levels of activin induces the expression of the Brachyury and goosecoid genes and causes the tissues to become notochord (Figures 1,2. Asashima et al., 1990; Sokol et al, 1990; Ariizumi et al., 1991; Green and Smith, 1992; Green et al., 1992). At even higher concentrations of activin, the animal cap can form heart and endodermal tissue (Ariizumi and Asashima, 1995).
|Figure 2 Not only does gene expression change in the activin A-induced animal caps, so do the structures. (After Asashima, 1994.)|
Adding other factors to activin also produces interesting results. The addition of retinoic acid to the concentration of activin that usually induces the formation of notochord will cause the formation of kidney tubules (see Figure 2). When insulin-like growth factor is added to the concentration of activin that can produce muscles, ear and eye vesicles form.
The long-range gradient effects of activin have also been demonstrated by another assay. Gurdon and coworkers (1994, 1995) have placed activin-containing beads within sandwiches of competent animal cap ectoderm. After two hours, Xenopus Brachyury (Xbra) expression can be seen a few cell diameters from the beads. After four hours, no Xbra expression is seen near the beads, but a rim of Xbra expression is now seen near the margins of the explant. Also at 4 hr, goosecoid (Xgsc) message is now seen near the explant (Figure 3). By transplanting cells with an inactive activin receptor in between the beads and the region where Xbra is expressed in four hours, Gurdon and colleagues showed that the expression of Xbra is due to the passive diffusion of activin and not to any activin-dependent signal mediated by the intermediate cells. Thus, the expression of Xbra and Xgsc is spatially related to the source of the gradient. The material closest to the source (presumably having a higher concentration of activin) induces the Xgsc gene (which is typical of notochord) , while regions further away from the activin source (presumably seeing a lower activin concentration) activate the Xbra gene (characteristic of many mesodermal tissues). Moreover, cells that used to express Xbra can be induced to express Xgsc when higher amounts of activin become available.
This demonstrates that activin can act in a gradient fashion to pattern the mesoderm. Ariizumi and Asashima (1995) have also documented, in a similar assay, that the time spent exposed to activin can have a similar effect. Thus, activin concentration differentials can be established by either distance from the source of activin or by time spent under the influence of activin. In either of these two manners, different activin concentrations may possibly help pattern the mesoderm.
While we still remain uncertain concerning the concentration and localization of activin the oocyte, it is probable that activin or some activin-like molecule is involved in patterning the mesoderm.
Ariizumi, T. and Asashima, M. 1995. Control of the embryonic body plan by activin during amphibian development. Zool. Sci. 12: 509-521.
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