During early vertebrate development, a series of inductive tissue interactions appear to be involved in establishing regional specializations that are eventually elaborated in the basic body plan of the embryo. These early inductive interactions are particularly difficult to study because they often occur in the absence of any associated morphological changes. In the chick embryo, the regional subdivision of the early ectoderm is evidenced by a marked lens-forming bias in the head ectoderm, which is absent from the presumptive dorsal epidermis of the trunk region. This striking divergence in developmental state is present long before any differentiation into lens or epidermal phenotypes can be detected. As a strategy for isolating genes whose differential expression might be a reflection of this regional subdivision, a cDNA library was prepared from early embryos and screened for differential hybridization to radiolabelled probes prepared from head ectoderm and trunk ectoderm. Two related cDNA clones were isolated that hybridize to transcripts present at much higher levels in trunk ectoderm than in head ectoderm. Sequence analysis of one of these clones revealed a high degree of similarity to members of the type II subfamily of intermediate filament cytokeratins. This clone (pCKse1) was used to examine cytokeratin gene expression in ectodermal tissues. A large increase in the level of CKse1 transcripts was found to take place in trunk ectoderm, approximately coordinate with neurulation, contrasting sharply with the much lower levels detected in head ectoderm and neural ectoderm at all stages tested. These results indicate that differential cytokeratin gene expression can occur within a contiguous layer of simple embryonic epithelia, and that this expression pattern coincides closely to the subdivision of the early ectoderm into regions with distinct developmental potencies. This type of regulation has not been described previously for members of the cytokeratin gene family.

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