Studies of chicken embryos have demonstrated that cell adhesion molecules are important in embryonic induction and are expressed in defined sequences during embryogenesis and histogenesis. To extend these observations and to provide comparable evidence for heterochronic changes in such sequences during evolution, the local distributions of the neural cell adhesion molecule (N-CAM) and of the liver cell adhesion molecule (L-CAM) were examined in Xenopus laevis embryos by immunohistochemical and biochemical techniques. Because of the technical difficulties presented by the existence of multiple polypeptide forms of CAMs and by autofluorescence of yolk-containing cells, special care was taken in choosing and characterizing antibodies, fluorophores, and embedding procedures. Both N-CAM and L-CAM were found at low levels in pregastrulation embryos. During gastrulation, N-CAM levels increased in the presumptive neural epithelium and decreased in the endoderm, but L-CAM continued to be expressed in all cells including endodermal cells. During neurulation, the level of N-CAM expression in the neural ectoderm increased considerably, while remaining constant in non-neural ectoderm and diminishing in the somites; in the notochord, N-CAM was expressed transiently. Prevalence modulation was also seen at all sites of secondary induction: both CAMs increased in the sensory layer of the ectoderm during condensation of the placodes. During organogenesis, the expression of L-CAM gradually diminished in the nervous system while N-CAM expression remained high. In all other organs examined, the amount of one or the other CAM decreased, so that by stage 50 these two molecules were expressed in non-overlapping territories. Embryonic and adult tissues were compared to search for concordance of CAM expression at later stages. With few exceptions, the tissue distributions of N-CAM and L-CAM were similar in the frog and in the chicken from early times of development. In contrast to previous observations in the chicken and in the mouse, N-CAM expression was found to be high in the adult liver of Xenopus, whereas L-CAM expression was low. In the adult brain, N-CAM was expressed as three components of apparent molecular mass 180, 140, and 120 kD, respectively; in earlier stages of development only the 140-kD component could be detected. In the liver, a single N-CAM band appears at 160 kD, raising the possibility that this band represents an unusual N-CAM polypeptide. L-CAM appeared at all stages as a 124-kD molecule.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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