In avian embryos, somites constitute the morphological unit of the metameric pattern. Somites are epithelia formed from a mesenchyme, the segmental plate, and are subsequently reorganized into dermatome, myotome, and sclerotome. In this study, we used somitogenesis as a basis to examine tissue remodeling during early vertebrate morphogenesis. Particular emphasis was put on the distribution and possible complementary roles of adhesion-promoting molecules, neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM), N-cadherin, fibronectin, and laminin. Both segmental plate and somitic cells exhibited in vitro calcium-dependent and calcium-independent systems of cell aggregation that could be inhibited respectively by anti-N-cadherin and anti-N-CAM antibodies. In vivo, the spatio-temporal expression of N-cadherin was closely associated with both the formation and local disruption of the somites. In contrast, changes in the prevalence of N-CAM did not strictly accompany the remodeling of the somitic epithelium into dermamyotome and sclerotome. It was also observed that fibronectin and laminin were reorganized secondarily in the extracellular spaces after CAM-mediated contacts were modulated. In an in vitro culture system of somites, N-cadherin was lost on individual cells released from somite explants and was reexpressed when these cells reached confluence and established intercellular contacts. In an assay of tissue dissociation in vitro, antibodies to N-cadherin or medium devoid of calcium strongly and reversibly dissociated explants of segmental plates and somites. Antibodies to N-CAM exhibited a smaller disrupting effect only on segmental plate explants. In contrast, antibodies to fibronectin and laminin did not perturb the cohesion of cells within the explants. These results emphasize the possible role of cell surface modulation of CAMs during the formation and remodeling of some transient embryonic epithelia. It is suggested that N-cadherin plays a major role in the control of tissue remodeling, a process in which N-CAM is also involved but to a lesser extent. The substratum adhesion molecules, fibronectin and laminin, do not appear to play a primary role in the regulation of these processes but may participate in cell positioning and in the stabilization of the epithelial structures.

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