Retinoic acid (RA) affects differentiation and morphogenesis in various developmental systems and is believed to act through nuclear RA receptors that belong to the steroid/thyroid hormone family of ligand-binding transcription factors. Three closely related receptors, RAR-alpha, -beta and -gamma, with distinct expression patterns, have been identified and a fourth receptor, hRXR-alpha, which responds to RA but which has low homology to RAR-alpha, -beta and -gamma, was recently discovered. Here we report the isolation of a cDNA clone encoding a chicken homologue of hRXR-alpha (cRXR) and show that a cRXR transcript of 2.5 kb is expressed in a range of embryonic chick tissues. By in situ hybridization to sections from stage 24 and stage 27 chick embryos, we show that cRXR transcripts are expressed at high levels in the liver and in elements of the developing peripheral nervous system derived from the neural crest, including dorsal root ganglia, cranial ganglia, enteric ganglia and peripheral nerve tracts. At stage 16, in the posterior trunk region, cRXR transcripts are expressed by cells in the neural crest and in neural crest cells migrating into the sclerotome, indicating that neural crest cells express cRXR transcripts before overt differentiation into peripheral nervous tissue. This distribution suggests a novel role for RA in the developing peripheral nervous system, mediated by cRXR. In addition, it identifies cRXR as a marker for a specific population of neural-crest-derived cells.

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