ABSTRACT In order to contribute to the appropriate tissues during development, cells need to know their position within the embryo. This positional information is conveyed by gradients of signaling molecules, termed morphogens, that are produced in specific regions of the embryo and induce concentration-dependent responses in target tissues. Positional information is remarkably robust, and embryos often develop with the correct proportions even if large parts of the embryo are removed. In this Review, we discuss classical embryological experiments and modern quantitative analyses that have led to mechanistic insights into how morphogen gradients adapt, scale and properly pattern differently sized domains. We analyze these experimental findings in the context of mathematical models and synthesize general principles that apply to multiple systems across species and developmental stages.
The graded distribution of morphogens underlies many of the tissue patterns that form during development. How morphogens disperse from a localized source and how gradients in the target tissue form has been under debate for decades. Recent imaging studies and biophysical measurements have provided evidence for various morphogen transport models ranging from passive mechanisms, such as free or hindered extracellular diffusion, to cell-based dispersal by transcytosis or cytonemes. Here, we analyze these transport models using the morphogens Nodal, fibroblast growth factor and Decapentaplegic as case studies. We propose that most of the available data support the idea that morphogen gradients form by diffusion that is hindered by tortuosity and binding to extracellular molecules.