Mouse primordial germ cells (PGCs) are initially identified as a cluster of alkaline phosphatase (AP)-positive cells within the extraembryonic mesoderm near the posterior part of the primitive streak at embryonic day (E) 7.25. Clonal analysis of epiblast cells has revealed that the putative precursors of PGCs are localized in the proximal epiblast, and we demonstrated that the conditions required for PGC formation are induced in the proximal region of epiblasts by extraembryonic ectoderm. Bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) 4 and BMP8b, which belong to the transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) superfamily, might generate induction signals from extraembryonic ectoderm. Smad1 and Smad5, which are intracellular signaling molecules for BMP4, might also play a critical role in stimulating epiblasts to form PGC. However, how pluripotential epiblasts temporally and spatially respond to BMP signals to form PGCs remains unclear. The present study examines changes of responsiveness to BMP4 for PGC formation in epiblasts and their molecular mechanisms. We initially examined the effect of recombinant human (rh) BMP4 upon cultured epiblasts at different developmental stages, and found that they acquire the ability to respond to BMP4 signals for PGC formation between E5.25 and E5.5. In addition, such competence was conferred upon epiblasts by the extraembryonic ectoderm. We also showed that the increased expression of Smad1 and the onset of Smad5 expression induced by extraembryonic ectoderm might be responsible for quick acquisition of this competence. Furthermore, we show that only proximal epiblast cells maintain responsiveness to BMP4 for PGC formation at E6.0, and that this is associated with the proximal epiblast-specific expression of Smad5. These results explain why only the proximal region of epiblasts can sustain the ability to form PGCs.
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