Neural crest cells in the trunk of the avian embryo come into contact with the somites and neural tube during the course of their migration. However, the relationship between the somites and the early migratory routes followed by these cells is not yet completely understood. Here, we use a tissue culture assay to examine if avian neural crest cells migrate through the somites. Cultures of quail somites were prepared from four adjacent regions along the neural axis in the trunk. Each region had four pairs of consecutive somites with region I being most anterior and region IV containing the last four segments. Within each region, the somites were separated from other tissues by enzymatic digestion and plated onto collagen-coated dishes. Immuno-cytochemical techniques were used to confirm that no neural crest cells, recognized by the HNK-1 antibody, were present on the surface of the somites at the time of explantation. After several days in culture, the explanted somites were screened to identify pigment cells. Because neural crest cells give rise to all of the melanocytes in the trunk, the presence of pigment cells indicated that neural crest precursors were contained within the initial explant. After 5–11 days in vitro, the percentage of somite cultures containing pigment cells in regions I through IV, respectively, was 36%, 51%, 31% and 1%. These results suggest that neural crest cells migrate through the somitic mesenchyme and first enter the somites between 5 to 9 segments rostral to the most recently formed somite.

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