Invariant patterning of left-right asymmetry during embryogenesis depends upon a cascade of inductive and repressive interactions between asymmetrically expressed genes. Different cascades of asymmetric genes distinguish the left and right sides of the embryo and are maintained by a midline barrier. As such, the left and right sides of an embryo can be viewed as distinct and autonomous fields. Here we describe a series of experiments that indicate that the initiation of these programs requires communication between the two sides of the blastoderm. When deprived of either the left or the right lateral halves of the blastoderm, embryos are incapable of patterning normal left-right gene expression at Hensen's node. Not only are both flanks required, suggesting that there is no single signaling source for LR pattern, but the blastoderm must be intact. These results are consistent with our previously proposed model in which the orientation of LR asymmetry in the frog, Xenopus laevis, depends on large-scale partitioning of LR determinants through intercellular gap junction channels (M. Levin and M. Mercola (1998) Developmental Biology 203, 90–105). Here we evaluate whether gap junctional communication is required for the LR asymmetry in the chick, where it is possible to order early events relative to the well-characterized left and right hierarchies of gene expression. Treatment of cultured chick embryos with lindane, which diminishes gap junctional communication, frequently unbiased normal LR asymmetry of Shh and Nodal gene expression, causing the normally left-sided program to be recapitulated symmetrically on the right side of the embryo. A survey of early expression of connexin mRNAs revealed that Cx43 is present throughout the blastoderm at Hamburger-Hamilton stage 2–3, prior to known asymmetric gene expression. Application of antisense oligodeoxynucleotides or blocking antibody to cultured embryos also resulted in bilateral expression of Shh and Nodal transcripts. Importantly, the node and primitive streak at these stages lack Cx43 mRNA. This result, together with the requirement for an intact blastoderm, suggests that the path of communication through gap junction channels circumvents the node and streak. We propose that left-right information is transferred unidirectionally throughout the epiblast by gap junction channels in order to pattern left-sided Shh expression at Hensen's node.

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