The mechanical behaviour of ectodermal cells in the area opaca and the supracellular organization of fibronectin in the adjacent extracellular matrix were studied in whole chick blastoderms developing in vitro. The pattern of spontaneous mechanical activity and its modification by immunoglobulins against fibronectin were determined using a real-time image-analysis system. The pattern of fibronectin was studied using immunocytochemical techniques.

It was found that the ectodermal cells in the area opaca actively develop a radially oriented contraction, which leads to a distension of the area pellucida from which the embryo develops. Abnormally increased tension resulted in perturbations of gastrulation and neurulation. An optimized mechanical equilibrium within the blastoderm seems to be necessary for normal development. Anti-fibronectin antibodies applied to the basal side of the blastoderm led rapidly and reversibly to an increase of tension in the contracted cells. This observation indicates that modifications of the extracellular matrix can be transmitted to cytoskeletal elements within adjacent cells.

The extracellular matrix of the area opaca contains fibronectin arranged in radially oriented fibrils. This orientation corresponds to the direction of migration of the mesodermal cells. Interestingly, the radial pattern of fibronectin is found in the regions where the ectodermal cells are contracted and develop radially oriented forces. This observation suggests that the supracellular assembly of the extracellular materials could be influenced by the mechanical activity of adjacent cells. Possible modulations of the supracellular organization of extracellular matrix by other factors, e.g. diffusible metabolites, is also discussed.

The presence of characteristically organized extracellular matrix components, of spatially differentiated cell activities and of reciprocal interactions between them makes the young chick blastoderm an excellent system for physiological studies of the coordinated cellular activities that lead to changes in form, complexity and function.

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