Embryonic development is orchestrated by a small number of signaling pathways, one of which is the retinoic acid (RA) signaling pathway. Vitamin A is essential for vertebrate embryonic development because it is the molecular precursor of the essential signaling molecule RA. The level and distribution of RA signaling within a developing embryo must be tightly regulated; too much, or too little, or abnormal distribution, all disrupt embryonic development. Precise regulation of RA signaling during embryogenesis is achieved by proteins involved in vitamin A metabolism, retinoid transport, nuclear signaling, and RA catabolism. The reversible first step in conversion of the precursor vitamin A to the active retinoid RA is mediated by retinol dehydrogenase 10 (RDH10) and dehydrogenase/reductase (SDR family) member 3 (DHRS3), two related membrane-bound proteins that functionally activate each other to mediate the interconversion of retinol and retinal. Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzymes do not contribute to RA production under normal conditions during embryogenesis. Genes involved in vitamin A metabolism and RA catabolism are expressed in tissue-specific patterns and are subject to feedback regulation. Mutations in genes encoding these proteins disrupt morphogenesis of many systems in a developing embryo. Together these observations demonstrate the importance of vitamin A metabolism in regulating RA signaling during embryonic development in vertebrates.
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