Studies on cell behaviour in vitro have indicated that the chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan (CSPG) family of molecules can participate in the control of cell proliferation, differentiation and adhesion, but its morphogenetic functions had not been investigated in intact embryos. Chondroitin/chondroitin sulphates have been identified in rat embryos at low levels at the start of neurulation (day 9) and at much higher levels on day 10. In this study we have sought evidence for the morphogenetic functions of CSPGs in rat embryos during the period of neurulation and neural crest cell migration by a combination of two approaches: immunocytochemical localization of CSPG by means of an antibody, CS-56, to the chondroitin sulphate component of CSPG, and exposure of embryos to the enzyme chondroitinase ABC. Staining of the CS-56 epitope was poor at the beginning of cranial neurulation; bright staining was at first confined to the primary mesenchyme under the convex neural folds late on day 9. In day 10 embryos, all mesenchyme cells were stained, but at different levels of intensity, so that primary mesenchyme, neural crest and sclerotomal cells could be distinguished from each other. Basement membranes were also stained, particularly bright staining being present where two epithelial were basally apposed, e.g., neural/surface ectoderms, dorsal aorta/neural tube, prior to migration of a population of cells between them. Staining within the neural epithelium was first confined to the dorsolateral edge region, and associated with the onset of neural crest cell emigration; after neural tube closure, neuroepithelial staining was more general. Neural crest cells were stained during migration, but the reaction was absent in areas associated with migration end-points (trigeminal ganglion anlagen, frontonasal mesenchyme). Embryos exposed to chondroitinase ABC in culture showed no abnormalities until early day 10, when cranial neural crest cell emigration from the neural epithelium was inhibited and neural tube closure was retarded. Sclerotomal cells failed to take their normal pathway between the dorsal aorta and neural tube. Correlation of the results of these two methods suggests: (1) that by decreasing adhesiveness within the neural epithelium at specific stages, CSPG facilitates the emigration of neural crest cells and the migratory movement of neuroblasts, and may also provide increased flexibility during the generation of epithelial curvatures; (2) that by decreasing the adhesiveness of fibronectin-containing extracellular matrices, CSPG facilitates the migration of neural crest and sclerotomal cells. This second function is particularly important when migrating cells take pathways between previously apposed tissues.

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