Membrane topography and organization of cortical cytoskeletal elements and organelles during early embryogenesis of the mouse have been studied by transmission and scanning electron microscopy with improved cellular preservation. At the four- and early eight-cell stages, blastomeres are round, and scanning electron microscopy shows a uniform distribution of microvilli over the cell surface. At the onset of morphogenesis, a reorganization of the blastomere surface is observed in which microvilli becomes restricted to an apical region and the basal zone of intercellular contact. As the blastomeres spread on each other during compaction, many microvilli remain in the basal region of imminent cell-cell contacts, but few are present where the cells have completed spreading on each other. Microvilli on the surface of these embryos contain linear arrays of microfilaments with lateral cross bridges.

Microtubules and mitochondria become localized beneath the apposed cell membranes during compaction. Arrays of cortical microtubules are aligned parallel to regions of apposed membranes. During cytokinesis, microtubules become redistributed in the region of the mitotic spindle, and fewer microvilli are present on most of the cell surface. The cell surface and cortical changes initiated during compaction are the first manifestations of cell polarity in embryogenesis. These and previous findings are interpreted as evidence that cell surface changes associated with trophoblast development appear as early as the eight-cell stage. Our observations suggest that morphogenesis involves the activation of a developmental program which coordinately controls cortical cytoplasmic and cell surface organization.

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