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1.  High-resolution gene expression data from blastoderm embryos of the scuttle fly Megaselia abdita  
Scientific Data  2015;2:150005.
Gap genes are involved in segment determination during early development in dipteran insects (flies, midges, and mosquitoes). We carried out a systematic quantitative comparative analysis of the gap gene network across different dipteran species. Our work provides mechanistic insights into the evolution of this pattern-forming network. As a central component of our project, we created a high-resolution quantitative spatio-temporal data set of gap and maternal co-ordinate gene expression in the blastoderm embryo of the non-drosophilid scuttle fly, Megaselia abdita. Our data include expression patterns in both wild-type and RNAi-treated embryos. The data—covering 10 genes, 10 time points, and over 1,000 individual embryos—consist of original embryo images, quantified expression profiles, extracted positions of expression boundaries, and integrated expression patterns, plus metadata and intermediate processing steps. These data provide a valuable resource for researchers interested in the comparative study of gene regulatory networks and pattern formation, an essential step towards a more quantitative and mechanistic understanding of developmental evolution.
PMCID: PMC4423355  PMID: 25977812
2.  BioPreDyn-bench: a suite of benchmark problems for dynamic modelling in systems biology 
Dynamic modelling is one of the cornerstones of systems biology. Many research efforts are currently being invested in the development and exploitation of large-scale kinetic models. The associated problems of parameter estimation (model calibration) and optimal experimental design are particularly challenging. The community has already developed many methods and software packages which aim to facilitate these tasks. However, there is a lack of suitable benchmark problems which allow a fair and systematic evaluation and comparison of these contributions.
Here we present BioPreDyn-bench, a set of challenging parameter estimation problems which aspire to serve as reference test cases in this area. This set comprises six problems including medium and large-scale kinetic models of the bacterium E. coli, baker’s yeast S. cerevisiae, the vinegar fly D. melanogaster, Chinese Hamster Ovary cells, and a generic signal transduction network. The level of description includes metabolism, transcription, signal transduction, and development. For each problem we provide (i) a basic description and formulation, (ii) implementations ready-to-run in several formats, (iii) computational results obtained with specific solvers, (iv) a basic analysis and interpretation.
This suite of benchmark problems can be readily used to evaluate and compare parameter estimation methods. Further, it can also be used to build test problems for sensitivity and identifiability analysis, model reduction and optimal experimental design methods. The suite, including codes and documentation, can be freely downloaded from the BioPreDyn-bench website,
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12918-015-0144-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4342829  PMID: 25880925
Dynamic modelling; Model calibration; Parameter estimation; Optimization; Benchmarks; Large-scale; Metabolism; Transcription; Signal transduction; development
3.  SuperFly: a comparative database for quantified spatio-temporal gene expression patterns in early dipteran embryos 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;43(Database issue):D751-D755.
We present SuperFly (, a relational database for quantified spatio-temporal expression data of segmentation genes during early development in different species of dipteran insects (flies, midges and mosquitoes). SuperFly has a special focus on emerging non-drosophilid model systems. The database currently includes data of high spatio-temporal resolution for three species: the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster, the scuttle fly Megaselia abdita and the moth midge Clogmia albipunctata. At this point, SuperFly covers up to 9 genes and 16 time points per species, with a total of 1823 individual embryos. It provides an intuitive web interface, enabling the user to query and access original embryo images, quantified expression profiles, extracted positions of expression boundaries and integrated datasets, plus metadata and intermediate processing steps. SuperFly is a valuable new resource for the quantitative comparative study of gene expression patterns across dipteran species. Moreover, it provides an interesting test set for systems biologists interested in fitting mathematical gene network models to data. Both of these aspects are essential ingredients for progress toward a more quantitative and mechanistic understanding of developmental evolution.
PMCID: PMC4383950  PMID: 25404137
4.  A quantitative atlas of Even-skipped and Hunchback expression in Clogmia albipunctata (Diptera: Psychodidae) blastoderm embryos 
EvoDevo  2014;5:1.
Comparative studies of developmental processes are one of the main approaches to evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). Over recent years, there has been a shift of focus from the comparative study of particular regulatory genes to the level of whole gene networks. Reverse-engineering methods can be used to computationally reconstitute and analyze the function and dynamics of such networks. These methods require quantitative spatio-temporal expression data for model fitting. Obtaining such data in non-model organisms remains a major technical challenge, impeding the wider application of data-driven mathematical modeling to evo-devo.
We have raised antibodies against four segmentation gene products in the moth midge Clogmia albipunctata, a non-drosophilid dipteran species. We have used these antibodies to create a quantitative atlas of protein expression patterns for the gap gene hunchback (hb), and the pair-rule gene even-skipped (eve). Our data reveal differences in the dynamics of Hb boundary positioning and Eve stripe formation between C. albipunctata and Drosophila melanogaster. Despite these differences, the overall relative spatial arrangement of Hb and Eve domains is remarkably conserved between these two distantly related dipteran species.
We provide a proof of principle that it is possible to acquire quantitative gene expression data at high accuracy and spatio-temporal resolution in non-model organisms. Our quantitative data extend earlier qualitative studies of segmentation gene expression in C. albipunctata, and provide a starting point for comparative reverse-engineering studies of the evolutionary and developmental dynamics of the segmentation gene system.
PMCID: PMC3897886  PMID: 24393251
Clogmia albipunctata; Non-drosophilid diptera; Non-model organism; Pattern formation; Comparative network analysis; Segmentation gene network; Hunchback; Even-skipped; Image bioinformatics; Quantitative expression data
5.  Reverse-Engineering Post-Transcriptional Regulation of Gap Genes in Drosophila melanogaster 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(10):e1003281.
Systems biology proceeds through repeated cycles of experiment and modeling. One way to implement this is reverse engineering, where models are fit to data to infer and analyse regulatory mechanisms. This requires rigorous methods to determine whether model parameters can be properly identified. Applying such methods in a complex biological context remains challenging. We use reverse engineering to study post-transcriptional regulation in pattern formation. As a case study, we analyse expression of the gap genes Krüppel, knirps, and giant in Drosophila melanogaster. We use detailed, quantitative datasets of gap gene mRNA and protein expression to solve and fit a model of post-transcriptional regulation, and establish its structural and practical identifiability. Our results demonstrate that post-transcriptional regulation is not required for patterning in this system, but is necessary for proper control of protein levels. Our work demonstrates that the uniqueness and specificity of a fitted model can be rigorously determined in the context of spatio-temporal pattern formation. This greatly increases the potential of reverse engineering for the study of development and other, similarly complex, biological processes.
Author Summary
The analysis of pattern-forming gene networks is largely focussed on transcriptional regulation. However, post-transcriptional events, such as translation and regulation of protein stability also play important roles in the establishment of protein expression patterns and levels. In this study, we use a reverse-engineering approach—fitting mathematical models to quantitative expression data—to analyse post-transcriptional regulation of the Drosophila gap genes Krüppel, knirps and giant, involved in segment determination during early embryogenesis. Rigorous fitting requires us to establish whether our models provide a robust and unique solution. We demonstrate, for the first time, that this can be done in the context of a complex spatio-temporal regulatory system. This is an important methodological advance for reverse-engineering developmental processes. Our results indicate that post-transcriptional regulation is not required for pattern formation, but is necessary for proper regulation of gap protein levels. Specifically, we predict that translation rates must be tuned for rapid early accumulation, and protein stability must be increased for persistence of high protein levels at late stages of gap gene expression.
PMCID: PMC3814631  PMID: 24204230
6.  Lack of tailless leads to an increase in expression variability in Drosophila embryos☆ 
Developmental Biology  2013;377(1):305-317.
Developmental processes are robust, or canalised: dynamic patterns of gene expression across space and time are regulated reliably and precisely in the presence of genetic and environmental perturbations. It remains unclear whether canalisation relies on specific regulatory factors (such as heat-shock proteins), or whether it is based on more general redundancy and distributed robustness at the network level. The latter explanation implies that mutations in many regulatory factors should exhibit loss of canalisation. Here, we present a quantitative characterisation of segmentation gene expression patterns in mutants of the terminal gap gene tailless (tll) in Drosophila melanogaster. Our analysis provides new insights into the dynamic mechanisms underlying gap gene regulation, and reveals significantly increased variability of gene expression in the mutant compared to the wild-type background. We show that both position and timing of posterior segmentation gene expression domains vary strongly from embryo-to-embryo in tll mutants. This variability must be caused by a vulnerability in the regulatory system which is hidden or buffered in the wild-type, but becomes uncovered by the deletion of tll. Our analysis provides evidence that loss of canalisation in mutants could be more widespread than previously thought.
► We present a quantitative analysis of spatial gene expression in Drosophila mutants. ► Dynamic gap domain shifts do not depend on expression of terminal gap genes or hb. ► Expression variability is greatly increased in a tll mutant background. ► This indicates de-canalisation (loss of developmental robustness) in the mutant. ► Such de-canalisation is a common phenomenon in mutants of developmental regulators.
PMCID: PMC3635121  PMID: 23333944
Drosophila embryogenesis; Segmentation gene network; Quantitative expression analysis; Pattern formation; Robustness/canalisation; Genetic capacitance
7.  Medium-Throughput Processing of Whole Mount In Situ Hybridisation Experiments into Gene Expression Domains 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e46658.
Understanding the function and evolution of developmental regulatory networks requires the characterisation and quantification of spatio-temporal gene expression patterns across a range of systems and species. However, most high-throughput methods to measure the dynamics of gene expression do not preserve the detailed spatial information needed in this context. For this reason, quantification methods based on image bioinformatics have become increasingly important over the past few years. Most available approaches in this field either focus on the detailed and accurate quantification of a small set of gene expression patterns, or attempt high-throughput analysis of spatial expression through binary pattern extraction and large-scale analysis of the resulting datasets. Here we present a robust, “medium-throughput” pipeline to process in situ hybridisation patterns from embryos of different species of flies. It bridges the gap between high-resolution, and high-throughput image processing methods, enabling us to quantify graded expression patterns along the antero-posterior axis of the embryo in an efficient and straightforward manner. Our method is based on a robust enzymatic (colorimetric) in situ hybridisation protocol and rapid data acquisition through wide-field microscopy. Data processing consists of image segmentation, profile extraction, and determination of expression domain boundary positions using a spline approximation. It results in sets of measured boundaries sorted by gene and developmental time point, which are analysed in terms of expression variability or spatio-temporal dynamics. Our method yields integrated time series of spatial gene expression, which can be used to reverse-engineer developmental gene regulatory networks across species. It is easily adaptable to other processes and species, enabling the in silico reconstitution of gene regulatory networks in a wide range of developmental contexts.
PMCID: PMC3460907  PMID: 23029561
8.  Efficient Reverse-Engineering of a Developmental Gene Regulatory Network 
PLoS Computational Biology  2012;8(7):e1002589.
Understanding the complex regulatory networks underlying development and evolution of multi-cellular organisms is a major problem in biology. Computational models can be used as tools to extract the regulatory structure and dynamics of such networks from gene expression data. This approach is called reverse engineering. It has been successfully applied to many gene networks in various biological systems. However, to reconstitute the structure and non-linear dynamics of a developmental gene network in its spatial context remains a considerable challenge. Here, we address this challenge using a case study: the gap gene network involved in segment determination during early development of Drosophila melanogaster. A major problem for reverse-engineering pattern-forming networks is the significant amount of time and effort required to acquire and quantify spatial gene expression data. We have developed a simplified data processing pipeline that considerably increases the throughput of the method, but results in data of reduced accuracy compared to those previously used for gap gene network inference. We demonstrate that we can infer the correct network structure using our reduced data set, and investigate minimal data requirements for successful reverse engineering. Our results show that timing and position of expression domain boundaries are the crucial features for determining regulatory network structure from data, while it is less important to precisely measure expression levels. Based on this, we define minimal data requirements for gap gene network inference. Our results demonstrate the feasibility of reverse-engineering with much reduced experimental effort. This enables more widespread use of the method in different developmental contexts and organisms. Such systematic application of data-driven models to real-world networks has enormous potential. Only the quantitative investigation of a large number of developmental gene regulatory networks will allow us to discover whether there are rules or regularities governing development and evolution of complex multi-cellular organisms.
Author Summary
To better understand multi-cellular organisms we need a better and more systematic understanding of the complex regulatory networks that govern their development and evolution. However, this problem is far from trivial. Regulatory networks involve many factors interacting in a non-linear manner, which makes it difficult to study them without the help of computers. Here, we investigate a computational method, reverse engineering, which allows us to reconstitute real-world regulatory networks in silico. As a case study, we investigate the gap gene network involved in determining the position of body segments during early development of Drosophila. We visualise spatial gap gene expression patterns using in situ hybridisation and microscopy. The resulting embryo images are quantified to measure the position of expression domain boundaries. We then use computational models as tools to extract regulatory information from the data. We investigate what kind, and how much data are required for successful network inference. Our results reveal that much less effort is required for reverse-engineering networks than previously thought. This opens the possibility of investigating a large number of developmental networks using this approach, which in turn will lead to a more general understanding of the rules and principles underlying development in animals and plants.
PMCID: PMC3395622  PMID: 22807664

Results 1-8 (8)