Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Shaping organs by a wingless-int/Notch/nonmuscle myosin module which orients feather bud elongation.

PMID 23576731


How organs are shaped to specific forms is a fundamental issue in developmental biology. To address this question, we used the repetitive, periodic pattern of feather morphogenesis on chicken skin as a model. Avian feathers within a single tract extend from dome-shaped primordia to thin conical structures with a common axis of orientation. From a systems biology perspective, the process is precise and robust. Using tissue transplantation assays, we demonstrate that a "zone of polarizing activity," localized in the posterior feather bud, is necessary and sufficient to mediate the directional elongation. This region contains a spatially well-defined nuclear β-catenin zone, which is induced by wingless-int (Wnt)7a protein diffusing in from posterior bud epithelium. Misexpressing nuclear β-catenin randomizes feather polarity. This dermal nuclear β-catenin zone, surrounded by Notch1 positive dermal cells, induces Jagged1. Inhibition of Notch signaling disrupts the spatial configuration of the nuclear β-catenin zone and leads to randomized feather polarity. Mathematical modeling predicts that lateral inhibition, mediated by Notch signaling, functions to reduce Wnt7a gradient variations and fluctuations to form the sharp boundary observed for the dermal β-catenin zone. This zone is also enriched for nonmuscle myosin IIB. Suppressing nonmuscle myosin IIB disrupts directional cell rearrangements and abolishes feather bud elongation. These data suggest that a unique molecular module involving chemical-mechanical coupling converts a pliable chemical gradient to a precise domain, ready for subsequent mechanical action, thus defining the position, boundary, and duration of localized morphogenetic activity that molds the shape of growing organs.