We have investigated by immunocytochemistry the spatial and temporal distribution of cellular retinoic acid-binding protein (CRABP) in the developing nervous system of the chick embryo in order to answer two specific questions: do neural crest cells contain CRABP and where and when do CRABP-positive neuroblasts first arise in the neural tube? With regard to the neural crest, we have compared CRABP staining with HNK-1 staining (a marker of migrating neural crest) and found that they do indeed co-localise, but cephalic and trunk crest behave slightly differently. In the cephalic region in tissues such as the frontonasal mass and branchial arches, HNK-1 immunoreactivity is intense at early stages, but it disappears as CRABP immunoreactivity appears. Thus the two staining patterns do not overlap, but are complementary. In the trunk, HNK-1 and CRABP stain the same cell populations at the same time, such as those migrating through the anterior halves of the somites. In the neural tube, CRABP-positive neuroblasts first appear in the rhombencephalon just after the neural folds close and then a particular pattern of immunoreactivity appears within the rhombomeres of the hindbrain. Labelled cells are present in the future spinal cord, the posterior rhombencephalon up to rhombomere 6 and in rhombomere 4 thus producing a single stripe pattern. This pattern is dynamic and gradually changes as anterior rhombomeres begin to label. The similarity of this initial pattern to the arrangement of certain homeobox genes in the mouse stimulated us to examine the expression of the chicken Hox-2.9 gene. We show that at stage 15 the pattern of expression of this gene is closely related to that of CRABP. The relationship between retinoic acid, CRABP and homeobox genes is discussed.

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