When Xenopus embryos are cultured in calcium- and magnesium-free medium (CMFM), the blastomeres lose adhesion but continue dividing to form a loose heap of cells. If divalent cations are restored at the early gastrula stage the cells re-adhere and eventually form muscle (a mesodermal cell type) as well as epidermis. If, however, the cells are dispersed during culture in CMFM, muscle does not form following reaggregation although epidermis does. This suggests that culturing blastomeres in a heap allows the transmission of mesoderm-induction signals from cell to cell while dispersion effectively dilutes the signal. In this paper, we have attempted to substitute for cell proximity by culturing dispersed blastomeres in XTC mesoderm-inducing factor (MIF). We find that dispersed cells do not respond to XTC-MIF by forming mesodermal cell types after reaggregation, but the factor does inhibit epidermal differentiation. One interpretation of this observation is that an early stage in mesoderm induction is the suppression of epidermal differentiation and that formation of mesoderm may require contact-mediated signals that are produced in response to XTC-MIF. We have gone on to study the suppression of epidermal differentiation in more detail. We find that this is a dose-dependent phenomenon that can occur in single cells in the absence of cell division. Animal pole blastomeres become more difficult to divert from epidermal differentiation at later stages of development and by stage 12 they are ‘determined’ to this fate. Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) also suppresses epidermal differentiation in isolated animal pole blastomeres and transforming growth factor-beta 1 acts synergistically with FGF in doing so.

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