Embryogenesis is guided by a limited set of signaling pathways dynamically expressed in different places. How a context-dependent signaling response is generated has been a central question of developmental biology, which can now be addressed with in vitro models of human embryos that are derived from embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Our previous work demonstrated that during early stages of hESC differentiation, cells chronicle signaling hierarchy. Only cells that have been exposed (primed) by WNT signaling can respond to subsequent activin exposure and differentiate to mesendodermal (ME) fates. Here, we show that WNT priming does not alter SMAD2 binding nor its chromatin opening but, instead, acts by inducing the expression of the SMAD2 co-factor EOMES. Expression of EOMES is sufficient to replace WNT upstream of activin-mediated ME differentiation, thus unveiling the mechanistic basis for priming and cellular memory in early development.

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