The mesoderm of amphibian embryos such as Xenopus laevis arises through an inductive interaction in which cells of the vegetal hemisphere of the embryo act on overlying equatorial and animal pole cells. Three classes of ‘mesoderm-inducing factor’ (MIF) that might be responsible for this interaction in vivo have been discovered. These are members of the transforming growth factor type beta (TGF-beta), fibroblast growth factor (FGF) and Wnt families. Among the most potent MIFs are the activins, members of the TGF-beta family, but RNA for activin A and B is not detectable in the Xenopus embryo until neurula and late blastula stages, respectively, and this is probably too late for the molecules to act as natural inducers. In this paper, we use the polymerase chain reaction to clone additional members of the TGF-beta family that might possess mesoderm-inducing activity. We show that transcripts encoding Xenopus bone morphogenetic protein 4 (XBMP-4) are detectable in the unfertilized egg, and that injection of XBMP-4 RNA into the animal hemisphere of Xenopus eggs causes animal caps isolated from the resulting blastulae to express mesoderm-specific markers. Surprisingly, however, XBMP-4 preferentially induces ventral mesoderm, whereas the closely related activin induces axial tissues. Furthermore, the action of XBMP-4 is ‘dominant’ over that of activin. In this respect, XBMP-4 differs from basic FGF, another ventral inducer, where simultaneous treatment with FGF and activin results in activin-like responses. The dominance of XBMP-4 over activin may account for the ability of injected XBMP-4 RNA to ‘ventralize’ whole Xenopus embryos. It is interesting, however, that blastopore formation in such embryos can occur perfectly normally. This contrasts with embryos ventralized by UV-irradiation and suggests that XBMP-4-induced ventralization occurs after the onset of gastrulation.

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