The zebrafish dorsoventral axis can first be distinguished at gastrulation, upon formation of the embryonic shield, the site of the organizer. We have asked whether the shield is specified before gastrulation. First, we show that brief exposure of premidblastula embryos to lithium, which is known to shut down the phospho-inositol signaling pathway, produces excessive shield formation and extreme hyper-dorsal development. Second, we show that the zebrafish goosecoid homeobox gene is activated at or just after the midblastula in a localized domain of cells that subsequently populate the most anterior region of the incipient shield and axial hypoblast, goosecoid expression is elevated and radialized by early lithium treatment, suggesting that goosecoid plays a role in establishing the organizer and shield. Our results demonstrate that the zebrafish dorsal axis is signaled by a pathway initiated in the cleavage-stage embryo. Furthermore, they provide novel insights into anterior morphogenesis.

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