Retinoic acid is a very potent teratogen and has also been implicated as an endogenous developmental signalling molecule in vertebrate embryos. One of the regions of the embryo reliably affected by exogenously applied RA is the hindbrain. In this paper, we describe in detail the hindbrain of Xenopus laevis embryos briefly treated with various levels of RA at gastrula stages. Such treatments lead to development of embryos with loss of anterior structures. In addition, RA has a general effect on rhombomere morphology and specific effects on the development of the anterior rhombomeres. This effect is demonstrated using neurofilament antibodies, HRP staining and in situ hybridisation using a probe for expression of the Xenopus Krox-20 gene. Anatomically it is evident that the development of the hindbrain normally anterior to the otocyst (rhombomeres 1–4) is abnormal following RA treatment. Sensory and motor axons of cranial nerves V and VII form a single root and the peripheral paths of V and VII and IX and X are also abnormal, as is the more anterior location of the otocyst. These anatomical changes are accompanied by changes in the pattern of expression for the gene XKrox-20, which normally expresses in rhombomeres 3 and 5, but is found in a single band in the anterior hindbrain of treated embryos which standardly fail to generate the normal external segmental appearance. The results are discussed in terms of both the teratogenic and possible endogenous roles of RA during normal development of the central nervous system. We conclude that low doses of RA applied during gastrulation have specific effects on the anterior Xenopus hindbrain which appear to be evolutionarily conserved in the light of similar recent findings in zebrafish.

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