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Biology LibreTexts

43.6B: Vertebrate Axis Formation

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  • Through the expression patterns of different genes, the three axes of the body are established, aiding in tissue and organ development.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the formation of body axes in vertebrates

    Key Points

    • As an animal develops, it must organize its internal and external structures such that the anterior/posterior (forward/backward), dorsal / ventral (back/belly), and lateral/medial (side/middle) axes are correctly determined.
    • Proteins that are part of the Wnt signaling pathway help determine the anterior/posterior axis by guiding the axons of the spinal cord in an anterior/posterior direction.
    • Together with the sonic hedgehog (Shh) protein, Wnt determines the dorsal/ventral axis; Wnt levels are highest in the dorsal region and lessen toward the ventral region, while Shh levels are highest in the ventral region and lessen toward the dorsal region.

    Key Terms

    • dorsal: with respect to, or concerning the side in which the backbone is located, or the analogous side of an invertebrate
    • ventral: on the front side of the human body, or the corresponding surface of an animal, usually the lower surface
    • notochord: a flexible rodlike structure that forms the main support of the body in the lowest chordates; a primitive spine
    • Wnt signaling pathway: a group of signal transduction pathways made of proteins that pass signals from outside of a cell through cell surface receptors to the inside of the cell

    Vertebrate Axis Formation

    Even as the germ layers form, the ball of cells still retains its spherical shape. However, animal bodies have lateral-medial (toward the side-toward the midline), dorsal-ventral (toward the back-toward the belly), and anterior-posterior (toward the front-toward the back) axes. As the body forms, it must develop in such a way that cells, tissues, and organs are organized correctly along these axes.


    Body axes: Animal bodies have three axes for symmetry: anterior/posterior (front/behind), dorsal/ventral (back/belly), and lateral/medial (side/middle).

    How are these established? In one of the most seminal experiments ever to be carried out in developmental biology, Spemann and Mangold took dorsal cells from one embryo and transplanted them into the belly region of another embryo. They found that the transplanted embryo now had two notochords: one at the dorsal site from the original cells and another at the transplanted site. This suggested that the dorsal cells were genetically programmed to form the notochord and define the dorsal-ventral axis. Since then, researchers have identified many genes that are responsible for axis formation. Mutations in these genes leads to the loss of symmetry required for organism development. Many of these genes are involved in the Wnt signaling pathway.

    In early embryonic development, the formation of the primary body axes is a crucial step in establishing the overall body plan of each particular organism. Wnt signaling can be implicated in the formation of the anteroposterior and dorsoventral axes. Wnt signaling activity in anterior-posterior development can be seen in several organisms including mammals, fish, and frogs. Wnt signaling is also involved in the axis formation of specific body parts and organ systems that are a part of later development. In vertebrates, sonic hedgehog (Shh) and Wnt morphogenetic signaling gradients establish the dorsoventral axis of the central nervous system during neural tube axial patterning. High Wnt signaling establishes the dorsal region while high Shh signaling indicates in the ventral region. Wnt is also involved in the dorsal-ventral formation of the central nervous system through its involvement in axon guidance. Wnt proteins guide the axons of the spinal cord in an anterior-posterior direction. Wnt is also involved in the formation of the limb dorsal-ventral axis. Specifically, Wnt7a helps produce the dorsal patterning of the developing limb.



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