The hedgehog signaling pathway is a mechanism that directs the development of embryonic cells in animals, from invertebrates to vertebrates. The hedgehog signaling pathway is a system of genes and gene products, mostly proteins, that convert one kind of signal into another, called transduction. In 1980, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric F. Wieschaus, at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, identified several fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) genes. They found that when those genes were changed or mutated, the mutated genes disrupted the normal development of fruit fly larvae. The researchers called one of the genes hedgehog (abbreviated hh). Nusslein-Volhard, Wieschaus, and Edward B. Lewis, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their research on how genes control early embryonic development in fruit flies. The hedgehog signaling pathway is conserved across many animal taxa or phyla, from Drosophila to humans. The hedgehog signaling pathway controls several key components of embryonic development, stem-cell maintenance, and it influences the development of some cancers.

The source-sink model, first proposed by biologist Francis Crick in 1970, is a theoretical system for how morphogens distribute themselves across small fields of early embryonic cells. A morphogen is a substance that determines the fate and phenotype of a group of cells through a concentration gradient of itself across that group. Crick’s theory has been experimentally confirmed with several morphogens, most notably with the protein bicoid , the first discovered morphogen. The model provides a theoretical structure for the understanding of some features of early embryonic development.

Bicoid is the protein product of a maternal-effect gene unique to flies of the genus Drosophila . In 1988 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard identified bicoid as the first known morphogen . A morphogen is a molecule that determines the fate and phenotype of a group of cells through a concentration gradient across that developing region. The bicoid gradient, which extends across the anterior-posterior axis of Drosophila embryos, organizes the head and thorax.

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