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Evolution of vertebrate forebrain development: how many different mechanisms?

  • ANN C. FOLEY (a1) and CLAUDIO D. STERN (a1)


Over the past 50 years and more, many models have been proposed to explain how the nervous system is initially induced and how it becomes subdivided into gross regions such as forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and spinal cord. Among these models is the 2-signal model of Nieuwkoop & Nigtevecht (1954), who suggested that an initial signal (‘activation’) from the organiser both neuralises and specifies the forebrain, while later signals (‘transformation’) from the same region progressively caudalise portions of this initial territory. An opposing idea emerged from the work of Otto Mangold (1933) and other members of the Spemann laboratory: 2 or more distinct organisers, emitting different signals, were proposed to be responsible for inducing the head, trunk and tail regions. Since then, evidence has accumulated that supports one or the other model, but it has been very difficult to distinguish between them. Recently, a considerable body of work from mouse embryos has been interpreted as favouring the latter model, and as suggesting that a ‘head organiser’, required for the induction of the forebrain, is spatially separate from the classic organiser (Hensen's node). An extraembryonic tissue, the ‘anterior visceral endoderm’ (AVE), was proposed to be the source of forebrain-inducing signals. It is difficult to find tissues that are directly equivalent embryologically or functionally to the AVE in other vertebrates, which led some (e.g. Kessel, 1998) to propose that mammals have evolved a new way of patterning the head. We will present evidence from the chick embryo showing that the hypoblast is embryologically and functionally equivalent to the mouse AVE. Like the latter, the hypoblast also plays a role in head development. However, it does not act like a true organiser. It induces pre-neural and pre-forebrain markers, but only transiently. Further development of neural and forebrain phenotypes requires additional signals not provided by the hypoblast. In addition, the hypoblast plays a role in directing cell movements in the adjacent epiblast. These movements distance the future forebrain territory from the developing organiser (Hensen's node), and we suggest that this is a mechanism to protect the forebrain from caudalising signals from the node. These mechanisms are consistent with all the findings obtained from the mouse to date. We conclude that the mechanisms responsible for setting up the forebrain and more caudal regions of the nervous system are probably similar among different classes of higher vertebrates. Moreover, while reconciling the two main models, our findings provide stronger support for Nieuwkoop's ideas than for the concept of multiple organisers, each inducing a distinct region of the CNS.


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Prof. Claudio Stern, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, University College London, Gower Street, London WCIE 6BT, UK. Fax: +44 (0) 20 7679 2091; e-mail


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Evolution of vertebrate forebrain development: how many different mechanisms?

  • ANN C. FOLEY (a1) and CLAUDIO D. STERN (a1)


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