Transcription factors and induction in Xenopus laevis embryos
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Studies with amphibian embryos have contributed major insights into the molecular basis of induction processes and the formation of germ layers during vertebrate embryogenesis. Primary signals that have been identified as growth factors or growth factor-related ligands act as inducing factors on their target cells and, by a change of the genetic program, evoke a specification of the cellular differentiation pathways. While at present the signal transduction mechanisms leading from the ligands via cognate receptors to the nuclei are still poorly understood, there is growing information on transcription factors which are activated upon induction. They govern the expression of other regulatory molecules and co-ordinate the expression of cell type-specific structural genes. Meanwhile, it is generally accepted that development and cellular differentiation in all muticellular organisms depends upon a cascade of evolutionarily conserved transcription factors. Striking structural similarities within their DNA-binding domains allow many of these factors to be subdivided into different transcription factor families. Most of the basic knowledge on these factors emerged from the pioneering work done with Drosophila embryos which was greatly facilitated by the availability of numerous mutants. Despite the fact that Drosophila development until the blastoderm stage proceeds in a multinuclear syncytium and thus is significantly different from that in vertebrate organisms, the primary structures of many embryonic transcription factors have been conserved in higher organisms. This especially holds true for the various DNA binding motifs and it facilitated the isolation and characterization of vertebrate homologues to factors previously identified in lower organisms.
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