Understanding how left–right (LR) asymmetry is generated in vertebrate embryos is an important problem in developmental biology. In humans, a failure to align the left and right sides of cardiovascular and/or gastrointestinal systems often results in birth defects. Evidence from patients and animal models has implicated cilia in the process of left–right patterning. Here, we review the proposed functions for cilia in establishing LR asymmetry, which include creating transient leftward fluid flows in an embryonic ‘left–right organizer’. These flows direct asymmetric activation of a conserved Nodal (TGFβ) signalling pathway that guides asymmetric morphogenesis of developing organs. We discuss the leading hypotheses for how cilia-generated asymmetric fluid flows are translated into asymmetric molecular signals. We also discuss emerging mechanisms that control the subcellular positioning of cilia and the cellular architecture of the left–right organizer, both of which are critical for effective cilia function during left–right patterning. Finally, using mosaic cell-labelling and time-lapse imaging in the zebrafish embryo, we provide new evidence that precursor cells maintain their relative positions as they give rise to the ciliated left–right organizer. This suggests the possibility that these cells acquire left–right positional information prior to the appearance of cilia.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Provocative questions in left–right asymmetry’.
- Accepted June 1, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.