One of the central problems facing developmental biologists is understanding how the unicellular zygote develops into a multicellular embryo composed of different tissue types. It is now clear that differentiated cell types differ because they express different sets of genes. However, how cells become instructed to express different sets of genes remains a mystery.
One popular model for how cell fates are determined invokes the existence and asymmetric distribution of cytoplasmic ‘determinants’ of cell fates (for reviews see Wilson, 1925; Davidson, 1976). According to this model, the developmental programmes of embryonic blastomeres are specified by internal factors that are differentially segregated to different blastomeres during the early cleavages of the zygote. Alternatively, cells may be instructed by extrinsic signals, in which case the positions of cells in the embryo and cell-cell interactions would be important. Observation and manipulation of embryos that show ‘mosaic’ development provide indirect support for the cell determinant theory.