Local application of retinoic acid to wing buds of chick embryos leads to dose- and position-dependent changes in the pattern of cellular differentiation. Early effects of retinoid treatment on the apical ectodermal ridge coordinate pattern changes and morphogenesis. The length of the apical ridge increases when additional digits will form but decreases when digits are lost. These changes in length can be understood in terms of a threshold response to the local retinoid concentration that results in either disappearance or maintenance of the ridge (Lee & Tickle, J. Embryol. exp. Morph. 90, 139–169 (1985)). Here, we have analysed the mechanisms involved in ridge disappearance by locally applying retinoic acid to the apex of stage 20 chick wing buds. With this treatment regime, low doses give duplicated digit patterns and higher doses truncations. The height of the apical ridge is progressively reduced with increasing doses of retinoid and the time course of ridge flattening indicates that the height of the ridge is correlated with bud outgrowth. With high doses of retinoic acid, the typical ridge, a pseudostratified epithelium in which the columnar cells are tightly packed, disappears and the epithelium at the tip of the bud consists of loosely packed cuboidal cells. Shortly after treatment, there is a decrease in the number of gap junctions between ridge cells. This early change in cell contacts suggests that gap junctions may be involved in maintaining epithelial morphology. When treated epithelium is recombined with untreated mesenchyme, an apical ridge is reestablished and distal structures can be generated. In contrast, when treated mesenchyme is recombined with the epithelium from normal buds, only proximal structures are formed. Therefore, retinoids can lead to a reorganization of the apical ectodermal ridge which is mediated and maintained by the mesenchyme.

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