In recent years there has been considerable interest in the role of retinoic acid (RA) in vertebrate-limb pattern formation. When RA is applied to the anterior of the chick wing bud, a mirror-image duplication of the limb pattern develops that is identical to the pattern resulting from grafts of posterior tissue (zone of polarizing activity, or ZPA). It has been proposed that position along the anterior-posterior axis in the chick limb is specified by a gradient of a diffusible factor produced by the ZPA. The ZPA-mimicking action of RA has led to the hypothesis that exogenously applied RA acts by providing graded spatial information across the anterior-posterior limb axis. An alternative interpretation is that RA changes anterior cells into ZPA cells, which in turn provide the actual pattern-duplicating stimulus; there is already some preliminary evidence that this occurs. A hybrid interpretation has also been suggested whereby ZPA cells are formed in response to RA exposure and then begin to release retinoids that act as graded spatial cues. We have used a functional assay to test anterior chick wing-bud cells for ZPA activity after exposure to RA. The results of our studies indicate that the action of RA is to change anterior cells into ZPA cells. Further, our results indicate that it is unlikely that RA-treated anterior cells then begin producing RA in such a way as to provide a graded positional signal.
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