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Background. The accessibility of the developing zebrafish pharyngeal dentition makes it an advantageous system in which to study many aspects of tooth development from early initiation to late morphogenesis. In mammals, hedgehog signaling is known to be essential for multiple stages of odontogenesis; however, potential roles for the pathway during initiation of tooth development or in later morphogenesis are incompletely understood. Results. We have identified mRNA expression of the hedgehog ligands shha and the receptors ptc1 and ptc2 during zebrafish pharyngeal tooth development. We looked for, but did not detect, tooth germ expression of the other known zebrafish hedgehog ligands shhb, dhh, ihha, or ihhb, suggesting that as in mammals, only Shh participates in zebrafish tooth development. Supporting this idea, we found that morphological and gene expression evidence of tooth initiation is eliminated in shha mutant embryos, and that morpholino antisense oligonucleotide knockdown of shha, but not shhb, function prevents mature tooth formation. Hedgehog pathway inhibition with the antagonist compound cyclopamine affected tooth formation at each stage in which we applied it: arresting development at early stages and disrupting mature tooth morphology when applied later. These results suggest that hedgehog signaling is required continuously during odontogenesis. In contrast, over-expression of shha had no effect on the developing dentition, possibly because shha is normally extensively expressed in the zebrafish pharyngeal region. Conclusion. We have identified previously unknown requirements for hedgehog signaling for early tooth initiation and later morphogenesis. The similarity of our results with data from mouse and other vertebrates suggests that despite gene duplication and changes in the location of where teeth form, the roles of hedgehog signaling in tooth development have been largely conserved during evolution. © 2010 Jackman et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.