The cloning and characterization of cDNAs representing four genes or small gene families that are coordinately expressed in a spatially restricted pattern during the very early blastula (VEB) stage of sea urchin development are presented. The VEB genes encode multiple transcripts that are expressed transiently in embryos of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus between 16-cell stage and hatching, with peak abundance 12 to 15 hours post-fertilization (approximately 150–250 cells). The VEB transcripts share the same spatial pattern in the early blastula embryo: they are asymmetrically distributed along the animal-vegetal axis but their distribution around this axis is uniform. Thus, the VEB transcripts are the earliest messages to reveal asymmetry along the primary axis in the sea urchin embryo. The temporal and spatial patterns of VEB transcript accumulation are not consistent with involvement of these gene products in cell division or in tissue-specific functions. Furthermore, VEB messages cannot be detected in either ovary or adult tissues, suggesting that these genes function exclusively during embryogenesis. We suggest that the VEB genes function in constructing the early blastula. Two VEB genes encode metalloendoproteases: one (SpHE) is hatching enzyme and the other (SpAN) is similar to bone morphogenetic protein-1 (BMP-1; Wozney et al., Science 242: 1528–1534, 1988) and the Tolloid gene product (tld) (Shimell et al., Cell 67: 459–482, 1991). Several lines of evidence suggest that the VEB genes are regulated directly by factors or regulatory activities localized along the maternally specificed animal-vegetal axis.

This content is only available via PDF.