We have analyzed cell behavior in the organizer region of the Xenopus laevis gastrula by making high resolution time-lapse recordings of cultured explants. The dorsal marginal zone, comprising among other tissues prospective notochord and somitic mesoderm, was cut from early gastrulae and cultured in a way that permits high resolution microscopy of the deep mesodermal cells, whose organized intercalation produces the dramatic movements of convergent extension. At first, the explants extend without much convergence. This initial expansion results from rapid radial intercalation, or exchange of cells between layers. During the second half of gastrulation, the explants begin to converge strongly toward the midline while continuing to extend vigorously. This second phase of extension is driven by mediolateral cell intercalation, the rearrangement of cells within each layer to lengthen and narrow the array. Toward the end of gastrulation, fissures separate the central notochord from the somitic mesoderm on each side, and cells in both tissues elongate mediolaterally as they intercalate. A detailed analysis of the spatial and temporal pattern of these behaviors shows that both radial and mediolateral intercalation begin first in anterior tissue, demonstrating that the anterior-posterior timing gradient so evident in the mesoderm of the neurula is already forming in the gastrula. Finally, time-lapse recordings of intact embryos reveal that radial intercalation takes places primarily before involution, while mediolateral intercalation begins as the mesoderm goes around the lip. We discuss the significance of these findings to our understanding of both the mechanics of gastrulation and the patterning of the dorsal axis.

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