Axonal chemotaxis is believed to be important in wiring up the developing and regenerating nervous system, but little is known about how axons actually respond to molecular gradients. We report a new quantitative assay that allows the long-term response of axons to gradients of known and controllable shape to be examined in a three-dimensional gel. Using this assay, we show that axons may be nature's most-sensitive gradient detectors, but this sensitivity exists only within a narrow range of ligand concentrations. This assay should also be applicable to other biological processes that are controlled by molecular gradients, such as cell migration and morphogenesis.
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