All-trans-retinoic acid causes striking digit pattern changes when it is continuously released from a bead implanted in the anterior margin of an early chick wing bud. In addition to the normal set of digits (234), extra digits form in a mirror-symmetrical arrangement, creating digit patterns such as a 432234. These retinoic acid-induced pattern duplications closely mimic those found after grafts of polarizing region cells to the same positions with regard to dose-response, timing, and positional effects. To elucidate the mechanism by which retinoic acid induces these pattern duplications, we have studied the temporal and spatial distribution of all-trans-retinoic acid and its potent analogue TTNPB in these limb buds. We find that the induction process is biphasic: there is an 8-h lag phase followed by a 6-h duplication phase, during which additional digits are irreversibly specified in the sequence digit 2, digit 3, digit 4. On average, formation of each digit seems to require between 1 and 2 h. The tissue concentrations, metabolic pattern, and spatial distribution of all-trans-retinoic acid and TTNPB in the limb rapidly reach a steady state, in which the continuous release of the retinoid is balanced by loss from metabolism and blood circulation. Pulse-chase experiments reveal that the half-time of clearance from the bud is 20 min for all-trans-retinoic acid and 80 min for TTNPB. Manipulations that change the experimentally induced steep concentration gradient of TTNPB suggest that a graded distribution of retinoid concentrations across the limb is required during the duplication phase to induce changes in the digit pattern. The extensive similarities between results obtained with retinoids and with polarizing region grafts raise the possibility that retinoic acid serves as a natural "morphogen" in the limb.

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