A surprisingly small number of signalling pathways generate a plethora of cellular responses ranging from the acquisition of multiple cell fates to proliferation, differentiation, morphogenesis and cell death. These diverse responses may be due to the dose-dependent activities of signalling factors, or to intrinsic differences in the response of cells to a given signal—a phenomenon called differential cellular competence
. In this review, we focus on temporal and spatial differences in competence for Hedgehog (HH) signalling, a signalling pathway that is reiteratively employed in embryos and adult organisms. We discuss the upstream signals and mechanisms that may establish differential competence for HHs in a range of different tissues. We argue that the changing competence for HH signalling provides a four-dimensional framework for the interpretation of the signal that is essential for the emergence of functional anatomy. A number of diseases—including several types of cancer—are caused by malfunctions of the HH pathway. A better understanding of what provides differential competence for this signal may reveal HH-related disease mechanisms and equip us with more specific tools to manipulate HH signalling in the clinic.
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