Fast-twitch muscle cells in zebrafish start off life as round blobs but must undergo anterio-posterior elongation to become functional myofibers. Henry and Amacher had noticed that this elongation process spreads in a medial-to-lateral wave, i.e., cells near the midline change shape first.
The authors first established that elongation required Hedgehog signaling. Transplantation experiments showed, however, that this effect was indirect. To restore fast-twitch elongation in a Hedgehog-signaling mutant, the critical ingredient was wild-type slow-twitch cells not wild-type fast-twitch cells.
In response to the Hedgehog signal, transplanted slow-twitch cells extended across the anterior–posterior width of a somite and migrated outwards from the notochord. Fast-twitch cells in their wake elongated. The effect could be relayed to other fast-twitch cells as long as the targets were in the same somite. In the wild type there are probably enough migrating cells to contact directly all of the fast-twitch cells.
Future work will show if the slow-twitch cell or its discarded extracellular matrix is acting as a scaffolding for the fast-twitch cell, or if other signals are at work. In other sites of cell migration, such as the developing limb and early embryo, there may be similar drop-offs of differentiation and morphogenesis cues.