The basic characteristics of embryonic process throughout Metazoa are considered with focus on those aspects that provide insight into how cell specification occurs in the initial stages of development. There appear to be three major types of embryogenesis: Type 1, a general form characteristic of most invertebrate taxa of today, in which lineage plays an important role in the spatial organization of the early embryo, and cell specification occurs in situ, by both autonomous and conditional mechanisms; Type 2, the vertebrate form of embryogenesis, which proceeds by mechanisms that are essentially independent of cell lineage, in which diffusible morphogens and extensive early cell migration are particularly important; Type 3, the form exemplified by long germ band insects in which several different regulatory mechanisms are used to generate precise patterns of nuclear gene expression prior to cellularization. Evolutionary implications of the phylogenetic distribution of these types of embryogenesis are considered. Regionally expressed homeodomain regulators are utilized in all three types of embryo, in similar ways in later and postembryonic development, but in different ways in early embryonic development. A specific downstream molecular function for this class of regulator is proposed, based on evidence obtained in vertebrate systems. This provides a route by which to approach the comparative regulatory strategies underlying the three major types of embryogenesis.

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