PLoS Biol. 2023 Mar 13;21(3):e3002021. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002021. Online ahead of print.
Morphogenetic gradients specify distinct cell populations within tissues. Originally, morphogens were conceived as substances that act on a static field of cells, yet cells usually move during development. Thus, the way cell fates are defined in moving cells remains a significant and largely unsolved problem. Here, we investigated this issue using spatial referencing of cells and 3D spatial statistics in the Drosophila blastoderm to reveal how cell density responds to morphogenetic activity. We show that the morphogen decapentaplegic (DPP) attracts cells towards its peak levels in the dorsal midline, whereas dorsal (DL) stalls them ventrally. We identified frazzled and GUK-holder as the downstream effectors regulated by these morphogens that constrict cells and provide the mechanical force necessary to draw cells dorsally. Surprisingly, GUKH and FRA modulate the DL and DPP gradient levels and this regulation creates a very precise mechanism of coordinating cell movement and fate specification.