A number of regulatory genes have been implicated in neural crest development. However, the molecular mechanism of how neural crest determination is initiated in the exact ectodermal location still remains elusive. Here, we show that the cooperative function of Pax3 and Zic1 determines the neural crest fate in the amphibian ectoderm. Pax3 and Zic1 are expressed in an overlapping manner in the presumptive neural crest area of the Xenopus gastrula, even prior to the onset of the expression of the early bona fide neural crest marker genes Foxd3 and Slug. Misexpression of both Pax3 and Zic1 together efficiently induces ectopic neural crest differentiation in the ventral ectoderm, whereas overexpression of either one of them only expands the expression of neural crest markers within the dorsolateral ectoderm. The induction of neural crest differentiation by Pax3 and Zic1 requires Wnt signaling. Loss-of-function studies in vivo and in the animal cap show that co-presence of Pax3 and Zic1 is essential for the initiation of neural crest differentiation. Thus, co-activation of Pax3 and Zic1, in concert with Wnt, plays a decisive role for early neural crest determination in the correct place of the Xenopus ectoderm.
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