Laboratoire de Biologie Cellulaire Animale, Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble, France.
The development of skin and cutaneous appendages in amniote embryos has been submitted to a large number of experimental investigations the results of which have led to a better understanding of the mechanisms whereby this multiform organ arises during embryonic development. In birds, the main appendages are the feathers and the foot scales. Their formation results from a series of inductive events between ectoderm (later epidermis) and subectodermal mesoderm (later individualized dermis). Morphogenetically, the mesodermal (mesenchymal) component of skin is the predominant tissue, insofar as it controls most morphological and physiological features of developing skin and appendages, notably transformation of ectoderm into epidermis, polarization, proliferation and stratification of epidermal cells, initiation, site, size and distribution pattern of epidermal placodes, species-specific architecture of appendages, regional specification of keratin synthesis. The ectodermal (epithelial) component is able to respond to the mesodermal inductive instructions by building feathers and scales in conformity with the specific origin of the dermis. In these epithelial-mesenchymal interactions, extracellular matrix and the microarchitecture of the dermal-epidermal junction appear to play an important role. Indeed extracellular matrix components (primarily collagens, proteoglycans and adhesive glycoproteins) and dermal cell processes close to the epidermal basement membrane become distributed in a microheterogeneous fashion, thus providing a changing substratum for the overlying epidermis. It is assumed that the latter is able to somehow sense the texture and composition of its substratum, and by doing so to appropriately engage in the formation of glabrous, feathered or scaly skin.