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The free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans makes a developmental decision based on environmental conditions: larvae either arrest as dauer larva, or continue development into reproductive adults. There is natural variation among C. elegans lines in the sensitivity of this decision to environmental conditions; that is, there is variation in the phenotypic plasticity of dauer larva development. We hypothesised that these differences may be transcriptionally controlled in early stage larvae. We investigated this by microarray analysis of different C. elegans lines under different environmental conditions, specifically the presence and absence of dauer larva-inducing pheromone.
There were substantial transcriptional differences between four C. elegans lines under the same environmental conditions. The expression of approximately 2,000 genes differed between genetically different lines, with each line showing a largely line-specific transcriptional profile. The expression of genes that are markers of larval moulting suggested that the lines may be developing at different rates. The expression of a total of 89 genes was putatively affected by dauer larva or non-dauer larva-inducing conditions. Among the upstream regions of these genes there was an over-representation of DAF-16-binding motifs.
Under the same environmental conditions genetically different lines of C. elegans had substantial transcriptional differences. This variation may be due to differences in the developmental rates of the lines. Different environmental conditions had a rather smaller effect on transcription. The preponderance of DAF-16-binding motifs upstream of these genes was consistent with these genes playing a key role in the decision between development into dauer or into non-dauer larvae. There was little overlap between the genes whose expression was affected by environmental conditions and previously identified loci involved in the plasticity of dauer larva development.