During embryonic development, cells destined to develop into discrete tissues must recognize and adhere to one another. These adhesive events are mediated by proteins found on the surfaces of cells, an example of which are the cadherins. Cadherins constitute a large family of transmembrane proteins that play essential roles in establishing adherens junctions between neighboring cells. Our lab studies the role of cadherins in embryonic development, with particular emphasis on the formation of the early vertebrate nervous system.
We have isolated several novel cadherin family members from both frog (Xenopus laevis) and chicken embryos. One such molecule, NF-protocadherin (NFPC) is expressed in early embryos in the ectoderm, where it mediates cell adhesion during formation of the embryonic epidermis. NFPC is also found in the developing nervous system in a subset of neurons in both the spinal cord and retina, implying that NFPC might mediate the adhesion and segregation of these neurons during development. We are currently analyzing the function of NFPC in neural tissue, by ectopic expression studies. Results from these studies will provide insights into the molecular mechanisms by which the vertebrate nervous system forms, as well as an understanding of how the adhesion between neighboring cells contributes to cellular differentiation and tissue histogenesis.