The Drosophila embryonic mesoderm forms by invagination of the ventral-most blastoderm cells. Subsequent development of this germ layer involves the dorsolateral migration of the internalized cells and expansion by cell division, followed by the specification of particular cell fates through the coordinate actions of both intrinsic and extrinsic regulatory mechanisms. The latter include several intercellular signals that function across germ layers. These processes combine to generate a diversity of mesodermal sub-types, including the cardial and pericardial cells of the heart or dorsal vessel, a complete set of somatic muscle founders each with its unique identity, a population of cells that form the visceral musculature, and other cells that develop into hemocytes and the fat body. Here, we review recent evidence for the involvement of a fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR) encoded by the heartless (htl) gene in early directional migration of the Drosophila mesoderm. In addition, we provide new data that 1) demonstrate a second role for Htl in promoting the specification of the precursors to certain cardiac and somatic muscle cells in the Drosophila embryo, independent of its cell migration function, 2) suggest that Ras and at least one other signal transduction pathway act downstream of Htl, and 3) establish a functional relationship between the Ras pathway and Tinman (Tin), a homeodomain factor that is essential for specifying some of the same dorsal mesodermal cells that are dependent on Htl. Finally, parallels between requirements for FGFR signaling in Drosophila and vertebrate mesoderm development are considered.
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