Establishment and interpretation of NODAL and BMP signaling gradients in early vertebrate development
Transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) family ligands play crucial roles in orchestrating early embryonic development. Most significantly, two family members, NODAL and BMP form signaling gradients and indeed in fish, frogs and sea urchins these two opposing gradients are sufficient to organize a complete embryonic axis. This review focuses on how these gradients are established and interpreted during early vertebrate development. The review highlights key principles that are emerging, in particular the importance of signaling duration as well as ligand concentration in both gradient generation and their interpretation. Feedforward and feedback loops involving other signaling pathways are also essential for providing spatial and temporal information downstream of the NODAL and BMP signaling pathways. Finally, new data suggest the existence of buffering mechanisms, whereby early signaling defects can be readily corrected downstream later in development, suggesting that signaling gradients do not have to be as precise as previously thought.