In mammals, rostral ectomesenchyme cells of the mandibular arch give rise to odontogenic cells, while more caudal cells form the distal skeletal elements of the lower jaw. Signals from the epithelium are required for the development of odontogenic and skeletogenic mesenchyme cells. We show that rostral-caudal polarity is first established in mandibular branchial arch ectomesenchymal cells by a signal, Fgf-8, from the rostral epithelium. All neural crest-derived ectomesenchymal cells are equicompetent to respond to Fgf-8. The restriction into rostral (Lhx-7-expressing) and caudal (Gsc-expressing) domains is achieved by cells responding differently according to their proximity to the source of the signal. Once established, spatial expression domains and cell fates are fixed and maintained by Fgf-8 in conjunction with another epithelial signal, endothelin-1, and by positional changes in ectomesenchymal cell competence to respond to the signal.

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