Understanding the mechanisms of embryonic cell cycles is a central goal of developmental biology, as the regulation of the cell cycle must be closely coordinated with other events during early embryogenesis. Quantitative imaging approaches have recently begun to reveal how the cell cycle oscillator is controlled in space and time, and how it is integrated with mechanical signals to drive morphogenesis. Here, we discuss how the Drosophila embryo has served as an excellent model for addressing the molecular and physical mechanisms of embryonic cell cycles, with comparisons to other model systems to highlight conserved and species-specific mechanisms. We describe how the rapid cleavage divisions characteristic of most metazoan embryos require chemical waves and cytoplasmic flows to coordinate morphogenesis across the large expanse of the embryo. We also outline how, in the late cleavage divisions, the cell cycle is inter-regulated with the activation of gene expression to ensure a reliable maternal-to-zygotic transition. Finally, we discuss how precise transcriptional regulation of the timing of mitosis ensures that tissue morphogenesis and cell proliferation are tightly controlled during gastrulation.

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