Proper embryonic development depends on the timely progression of a genetic program. One of the key mechanisms for achieving precise control of developmental timing is to use gene expression oscillations. In this Review, we examine how gene expression oscillations encode temporal information during vertebrate embryonic development by discussing the gene expression oscillations occurring during somitogenesis, neurogenesis, myogenesis and pancreas development. These oscillations play important but varied physiological functions in different contexts. Oscillations control the period of somite formation during somitogenesis, whereas they regulate the proliferation-to-differentiation switch of stem cells and progenitor cells during neurogenesis, myogenesis and pancreas development. We describe the similarities and differences of the expression pattern in space (i.e. whether oscillations are synchronous or asynchronous across neighboring cells) and in time (i.e. different time scales) of mammalian Hes/zebrafish Her genes and their targets in different tissues. We further summarize experimental evidence for the functional role of their oscillations. Finally, we discuss the outstanding questions for future research.

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