Neural crest cells are conventionally believed to migrate arbitrarily into various pathways and to differentiate according to the environmental cues that they encounter. We present data consistent with the notion that melanocytes are directed, by virtue of their phenotype, into the dorsolateral path, whereas other neural crest derivatives are excluded. In the avian embryo, trunk neural crest cells that migrate ventrally differentiate largely into neurons and glial cells of the peripheral nervous system. Neural crest cells that migrate into the dorsolateral path become melanocytes, the pigment cells of the skin. Neural crest cells destined for the dorsolateral path are delayed in their migration until at least 24 hours after migration commences ventrally. Previous studies have suggested that invasion into the dorsolateral path is dependent upon a change in the migratory environment. A complementary possibility is that as neural crest cells differentiate into melanocytes they acquire the ability to take this pathway. When quail neural crest cells that have been grown in culture for 12 hours are labeled with Fluoro-gold and then grafted into the early migratory pathway at the thoracic level, they migrate only ventrally and are coincident with the host neural crest. When fully differentiated melanocytes (96 hours old) are back-grafted under identical conditions, however, they enter the dorsolateral path and invade the ectoderm at least one day prior to the host neural crest. Likewise, neural crest cells that have been cultured for at least 20 hours and are enriched in melanoblasts immediately migrate in the dorsolateral path, in addition to the ventral path, when back-grafted into the thoracic level. A population of neural crest cells depleted of melanoblasts--crest cells derived from the branchial arches--are not able to invade the dorsolateral path, suggesting that only pigment cells or their precursors are able to take this migratory route. These results suggest that as neural crest cells differentiate into melanocytes they can exploit the dorsolateral path immediately. Even when 12-hour crest cells are grafted into stage 19–21 embryos at an axial level where host crest are invading the dorsolateral path, these young neural crest cells do not migrate dorsolaterally. Conversely, melanoblasts or melanocytes grafted under the same circumstances are found in the ectoderm. These latter results suggest that during normal development neural crest cells must be specified, if not already beginning to differentiate, as melanocytes in order to take this path.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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