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We aim to evaluate environmental and genetic effects on the expansion/proliferation of committed single cells during embryonic development, using melanoblasts as a paradigm to model this phenomenon. Melanoblasts are a specific type of cell that display extensive cellular proliferation during development. However, the events controlling melanoblast expansion are still poorly understood due to insufficient knowledge concerning their number and distribution in the various skin compartments. We show that melanoblast expansion is tightly controlled both spatially and temporally, with little variation between embryos. We established a mathematical model reflecting the main cellular mechanisms involved in melanoblast expansion, including proliferation and migration from the dermis to epidermis. In association with biological information, the model allows the calculation of doubling times for melanoblasts, revealing that dermal and epidermal melanoblasts have short but different doubling times. Moreover, the number of trunk founder melanoblasts at E8.5 was estimated to be 16, a population impossible to count by classical biological approaches. We also assessed the importance of the genetic background by studying gain- and loss-of-function β-catenin mutants in the melanocyte lineage. We found that any alteration of β-catenin activity, whether positive or negative, reduced both dermal and epidermal melanoblast proliferation. Finally, we determined that the pool of dermal melanoblasts remains constant in wild-type and mutant embryos during development, implying that specific control mechanisms associated with cell division ensure half of the cells at each cell division to migrate from the dermis to the epidermis. Modeling melanoblast expansion revealed novel links between cell division, cell localization within the embryo and appropriate feedback control through β-catenin.

Original publication




Journal article




The Company of Biologists

Publication Date





3943 - 3954