In the sea urchin embryo, the animal-vegetal axis is established during oogenesis and the oral-aboral axis is specified sometime after fertilization. The mechanisms by which either of these axes are specified and patterned during embryogenesis are poorly understood. Here, we investigated the role of cellular interactions in the specification of the ectoderm territories and polarization of the ectoderm along the oral-aboral axis. Isolated animal halves (mesomeres), which are fated to give rise to oral and aboral ectoderm, developed into polarized embryoids that expressed an oral ectoderm-specific marker uniformly. These embryoids also produced neuron-like cells and serotonergic neurons, suggesting that mesomeres are autonomously specified as oral ectoderm. Mesomere-derived embryoids did not express any aboral ectoderm-specific markers, although we previously showed that aboral ectoderm-specific genes can be induced by 25 mM lithium chloride, which also induced endoderm formation (Wikramanayake, A. H., Brandhorst, B. P. and Klein, W. H.(1995). Development 121, 1497–1505). To ascertain if endoderm formation is a prerequisite for induction of aboral ectoderm by lithium and for normal ectoderm patterning in animal halves, we modulated the lithium treatment to ensure that no endoderm formed. Remarkably, treating animal halves with 10 mM LiCl at approximately 7 hours postfertilization resulted in embryoids that displayed oral-aboral axis patterning in the absence of endoderm. Application of 25 mM LiCl to animal halves at approximately 16 hours postfertilization, which also did not induce endoderm, resulted in polarized expression of the aboral ectoderm-specific LpS1 protein, but global expression of the Ecto V antigen and no induction of the stomodeum or ciliary band. These results suggest that at least two signals, a positive inductive signal to specify the aboral ectoderm and a negative suppressive signal to inactivate oral ectoderm-specific genes in the prospective aboral ectoderm territory, are needed for correct spatial expression of oral and aboral ectoderm-specific genes. Transmission of both these signals may be prerequisite for induction of secondary ectodermal structures such as the ciliary band and stomodeum. Thus, differentiation of ectoderm and polarization of the oral-aboral axis in Lytechinus pictus depends on cellular interactions with vegetal blastomeres as well as interactions along the oral-aboral axis.

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