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1.  A Staging Scheme for the Development of the Scuttle Fly Megaselia abdita 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e84421.
Model organisms, such as Drosophila melanogaster, provide powerful experimental tools for the study of development. However, approaches using model systems need to be complemented by comparative studies for us to gain a deeper understanding of the functional properties and evolution of developmental processes. New model organisms need to be established to enable such comparative work. The establishment of new model system requires a detailed description of its life cycle and development. The resulting staging scheme is essential for providing morphological context for molecular studies, and allows us to homologise developmental processes between species. In this paper, we provide a staging scheme and morphological characterisation of the life cycle for an emerging non-drosophilid dipteran model system: the scuttle fly Megaselia abdita. We pay particular attention to early embryogenesis (cleavage and blastoderm stages up to gastrulation), the formation and retraction of extraembryonic tissues, and the determination and formation of germ (pole) cells. Despite the large evolutionary distance between the two species (approximately 150 million years), we find that M. abdita development is remarkably similar to D. melanogaster in terms of developmental landmarks and their relative timing.
PMCID: PMC3883658  PMID: 24409295
2.  A Staging Scheme for the Development of the Moth Midge Clogmia albipunctata 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e84422.
Model organisms, such as Drosophila melanogaster, allow us to address a wide range of biological questions with experimental rigour. However, studies in model species need to be complemented by comparative studies if we are to fully understand the functional properties and evolutionary history of developmental processes. The establishment of new model organisms is crucial for this purpose. One of the first essential steps to establish a species as an experimental model is to carefully describe its life cycle and development. The resulting staging scheme serves as a framework for molecular studies, and allows us to homologise developmental processes between species. In this paper, we have characterised the life cycle and development of an emerging non-drosophilid dipteran model system: the moth midge Clogmia albipunctata. In particular, we focus on early embryogenesis (cleavage and blastoderm cycles before gastrulation), on formation and retraction of extraembryonic tissues, and on formation of the germ line. Considering the large evolutionary distance between the two species (approximately 250 million years), we find that the development of C. albipunctata is remarkably conserved compared to D. melanogaster. On the other hand, we detect significant differences in morphology and timing affecting the development of extraembryonic tissues and the germ line. Moreover, C. albipunctata shows several heterochronic shifts, and lacks head involution and associated processes during late stages of development.
PMCID: PMC3883683  PMID: 24409296
3.  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
4.  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
5.  A Comparative Analysis of Transcription Factor Expression during Metazoan Embryonic Development 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(6):e66826.
During embryonic development, a complex organism is formed from a single starting cell. These processes of growth and differentiation are driven by large transcriptional changes, which are following the expression and activity of transcription factors (TFs). This study sought to compare TF expression during embryonic development in a diverse group of metazoan animals: representatives of vertebrates (Danio rerio, Xenopus tropicalis), a chordate (Ciona intestinalis) and invertebrate phyla such as insects (Drosophila melanogaster, Anopheles gambiae) and nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans) were sampled, The different species showed overall very similar TF expression patterns, with TF expression increasing during the initial stages of development. C2H2 zinc finger TFs were over-represented and Homeobox TFs were under-represented in the early stages in all species. We further clustered TFs for each species based on their quantitative temporal expression profiles. This showed very similar TF expression trends in development in vertebrate and insect species. However, analysis of the expression of orthologous pairs between more closely related species showed that expression of most individual TFs is not conserved, following the general model of duplication and diversification. The degree of similarity between TF expression between Xenopus tropicalis and Danio rerio followed the hourglass model, with the greatest similarity occuring during the early tailbud stage in Xenopus tropicalis and the late segmentation stage in Danio rerio. However, for Drosophila melanogaster and Anopheles gambiae there were two periods of high TF transcriptome similarity, one during the Arthropod phylotypic stage at 8–10 hours into Drosophila development and the other later at 16–18 hours into Drosophila development.
PMCID: PMC3682979  PMID: 23799133
6.  A New Component of the Nasonia Sex Determining Cascade Is Maternally Silenced and Regulates Transformer Expression 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(5):e63618.
Although sex determination is a universal process in sexually reproducing organisms, sex determination pathways are among the most highly variable genetic systems found in nature. Nevertheless, general principles can be identified among the diversity, like the central role of transformer (tra) in insects. When a functional TRA protein is produced in early embryogenesis, the female sex determining route is activated, while prevention of TRA production leads to male development. In dipterans, male development is achieved by prevention of female-specific splicing of tra mRNA, either mediated by X-chromosome dose or masculinizing factors. In Hymenoptera, which have haplodiploid sex determination, complementary sex determination and maternal imprinting have been identified to regulate timely TRA production. In the parasitoid Nasonia, zygotic transformer (Nvtra) expression and splicing is regulated by a combination of maternal provision of Nvtra mRNA and silencing of Nvtra expression in unfertilized eggs. It is unclear, however, if this silencing is directly on the tra locus or whether it is mediated through maternal silencing of a trans-acting factor. Here we show that in Nasonia, female sex determination is dependent on zygotic activation of Nvtra expression by an as yet unknown factor. This factor, which we propose to term womanizer (wom), is maternally silenced during oogenesis to ensure male development in unfertilized eggs. This finding implicates the upstream recruitment of a novel gene in the Nasonia sex determining cascade and supports the notion that sex determining cascades can rapidly change by adding new components on top of existing regulators.
PMCID: PMC3661551  PMID: 23717455
7.  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
8.  Evolution and expression of BMP genes in flies 
Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) play key roles in development. In Drosophila melanogaster, there are three BMP-encoding genes: decapentaplegic (dpp), glass bottom boat (gbb) and screw (scw). dpp and gbb are found in all groups of insects. In contrast, the origin of scw via duplication of an ancestral gbb homologue is more recent, with new evidence placing it within the Diptera. Recent studies show that scw appeared basal to the Schizophora, since scw orthologues exist in aschizan cyclorrhaphan flies. In order to further localise the origin of scw, we have utilised new genomic resources for the nematoceran moth midge Clogmia albipunctata (Psychodidae). We identified the BMP subclass members dpp and gbb from an early embryonic transcriptome and show that their expression patterns in the blastoderm differ considerably from those seen in cyclorrhaphan flies. Further searches of the genome of C. albipunctata were unable to identify a scw-like gbb duplicate, but confirm the presence of dpp and gbb. Our phylogenetic analysis shows these to be clear orthologues of dpp and gbb from other non-cyclorrhaphan insects, with C. albipunctata gbb branching ancestrally to the cyclorrhaphan gbb/scw split. Furthermore, our analysis suggests that scw is absent from all Nematocera, including the Bibionomorpha. We conclude that the gbb/scw duplication occurred between the separation of the lineage leading to Brachycera and the origin of cyclorrhaphan flies 200–150 Ma ago.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00427-013-0445-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC3744649  PMID: 23595982
Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs); Phylogenetic analysis; Gene duplication; Diptera; Clogmia albipunctata
9.  Before the Endless Forms: Embodied Model of Transition from Single Cells to Aggregates to Ecosystem Engineering 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(4):e59664.
The emergence of complex multicellular systems and their associated developmental programs is one of the major problems of evolutionary biology. The advantages of cooperation over individuality seem well known but it is not clear yet how such increase of complexity emerged from unicellular life forms. Current multicellular systems display a complex cell-cell communication machinery, often tied to large-scale controls of body size or tissue homeostasis. Some unicellular life forms are simpler and involve groups of cells cooperating in a tissue-like fashion, as it occurs with biofilms. However, before true gene regulatory interactions were widespread and allowed for controlled changes in cell phenotypes, simple cellular colonies displaying adhesion and interacting with their environments were in place. In this context, models often ignore the physical embedding of evolving cells, thus leaving aside a key component. The potential for evolving pre-developmental patterns is a relevant issue: how far a colony of evolving cells can go? Here we study these pre-conditions for morphogenesis by using CHIMERA, a physically embodied computational model of evolving virtual organisms in a pre-Mendelian world. Starting from a population of identical, independent cells moving in a fluid, the system undergoes a series of changes, from spatial segregation, increased adhesion and the development of generalism. Eventually, a major transition occurs where a change in the flow of nutrients is triggered by a sub-population. This ecosystem engineering phenomenon leads to a subsequent separation of the ecological network into two well defined compartments. The relevance of these results for evodevo and its potential ecological triggers is discussed.
PMCID: PMC3626615  PMID: 23596506
10.  Is a Persistent Global Bias Necessary for the Establishment of Planar Cell Polarity? 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(4):e60064.
Planar cell polarity (PCP)–the coordinated polarisation of a whole field of cells within the plane of a tissue–relies on the interaction of three modules: a global module that couples individual cellular polarity to the tissue axis, a local module that aligns the axis of polarisation of neighbouring cells, and a readout module that directs the correct outgrowth of PCP-regulated structures such as hairs and bristles. While much is known about the molecular components that are required for PCP, the functional details of–and interactions between–the modules remain unclear. In this work, we perform a mathematical and computational analysis of two previously proposed computational models of the local module (Amonlirdviman et al., Science, 307, 2005; Le Garrec et al., Dev. Dyn., 235, 2006). Both models can reproduce wild-type and mutant phenotypes of PCP observed in the Drosophila wing under the assumption that a tissue-wide polarity cue from the global module persists throughout the development of PCP. We demonstrate that both models can also generate tissue-level PCP when provided with only a transient initial polarity cue. However, in these models such transient cues are not sufficient to ensure robustness of the resulting cellular polarisation.
PMCID: PMC3620226  PMID: 23593163
11.  Comparative transcriptomics of early dipteran development 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:123.
Modern sequencing technologies have massively increased the amount of data available for comparative genomics. Whole-transcriptome shotgun sequencing (RNA-seq) provides a powerful basis for comparative studies. In particular, this approach holds great promise for emerging model species in fields such as evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo).
We have sequenced early embryonic transcriptomes of two non-drosophilid dipteran species: the moth midge Clogmia albipunctata, and the scuttle fly Megaselia abdita. Our analysis includes a third, published, transcriptome for the hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus. These emerging models for comparative developmental studies close an important phylogenetic gap between Drosophila melanogaster and other insect model systems. In this paper, we provide a comparative analysis of early embryonic transcriptomes across species, and use our data for a phylogenomic re-evaluation of dipteran phylogenetic relationships.
We show how comparative transcriptomics can be used to create useful resources for evo-devo, and to investigate phylogenetic relationships. Our results demonstrate that de novo assembly of short (Illumina) reads yields high-quality, high-coverage transcriptomic data sets. We use these data to investigate deep dipteran phylogenetic relationships. Our results, based on a concatenation of 160 orthologous genes, provide support for the traditional view of Clogmia being the sister group of Brachycera (Megaselia, Episyrphus, Drosophila), rather than that of Culicomorpha (which includes mosquitoes and blackflies).
PMCID: PMC3616871  PMID: 23432914
Non-drosophilid diptera; Clogmia albipunctata; Megaselia abdita; Episyrphus balteatus; Comparative transcriptomics; RNA-seq; De novo assembly; Automated annotation; Evolutionary developmental biology; Phylogenomics
12.  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
13.  Multi-Criteria Optimization of Regulation in Metabolic Networks 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e41122.
Determining the regulation of metabolic networks at genome scale is a hard task. It has been hypothesized that biochemical pathways and metabolic networks might have undergone an evolutionary process of optimization with respect to several criteria over time. In this contribution, a multi-criteria approach has been used to optimize parameters for the allosteric regulation of enzymes in a model of a metabolic substrate-cycle. This has been carried out by calculating the Pareto set of optimal solutions according to two objectives: the proper direction of flux in a metabolic cycle and the energetic cost of applying the set of parameters. Different Pareto fronts have been calculated for eight different “environments” (specific time courses of end product concentrations). For each resulting front the so-called knee point is identified, which can be considered a preferred trade-off solution. Interestingly, the optimal control parameters corresponding to each of these points also lead to optimal behaviour in all the other environments. By calculating the average of the different parameter sets for the knee solutions more frequently found, a final and optimal consensus set of parameters can be obtained, which is an indication on the existence of a universal regulation mechanism for this system.The implications from such a universal regulatory switch are discussed in the framework of large metabolic networks.
PMCID: PMC3406099  PMID: 22848435
14.  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
15.  Characterizing Multistationarity Regimes in Biochemical Reaction Networks 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e39194.
Switch like responses appear as common strategies in the regulation of cellular systems. Here we present a method to characterize bistable regimes in biochemical reaction networks that can be of use to both direct and reverse engineering of biological switches. In the design of a synthetic biological switch, it is important to study the capability for bistability of the underlying biochemical network structure. Chemical Reaction Network Theory (CRNT) may help at this level to decide whether a given network has the capacity for multiple positive equilibria, based on their structural properties. However, in order to build a working switch, we also need to ensure that the bistability property is robust, by studying the conditions leading to the existence of two different steady states. In the reverse engineering of biological switches, knowledge collected about the bistable regimes of the underlying potential model structures can contribute at the model identification stage to a drastic reduction of the feasible region in the parameter space of search. In this work, we make use and extend previous results of the CRNT, aiming not only to discriminate whether a biochemical reaction network can exhibit multiple steady states, but also to determine the regions within the whole space of parameters capable of producing multistationarity. To that purpose we present and justify a condition on the parameters of biochemical networks for the appearance of multistationarity, and propose an efficient and reliable computational method to check its satisfaction through the parameter space.
PMCID: PMC3389020  PMID: 22802936
16.  Mechanical Force Alters Morphogenetic Movements and Segmental Gene Expression Patterns during Drosophila Embryogenesis 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(3):e33089.
The development of an organism is accompanied by various cellular morphogenetic movements, changes in cellular as well as nuclear morphology and transcription programs. Recent evidence suggests that intra and inter-cellular connections mediated by various adhesion proteins contribute to defining nuclear morphology. In addition, three dimensional organization of the cell nucleus regulate the transcription programs. However the link between cellular morphogenetic movements and its coupling to nuclear function in a developmental context is poorly understood. In this paper we use a point perturbation by tissue level laser ablation and sheet perturbation by application of force using magnetic tweezers to alter cellular morphogenetic movements and probe its impact on nuclear morphology and segmental gene expression patterns. Mechanical perturbations during blastoderm stage in a developing Drosophila embryo resulted in localized alterations in nuclear morphology and cellular movement. In addition, global defects in germ-band (GB) extension and retraction are observed when external force is applied during morphogenetic movements, suggesting a long-range physical coupling within the GB layer of cells. Further local application of force resulted in redistribution of non muscle myosin-II in the GB layer. Finally these perturbations lead to altered segmental gene (engrailed) expression patterns later during the development. Our observations suggest that there exists a tight regulation between nuclear morphology and cellular adhesive connections during morphogenetic movement of cells in the embryo. The observed spatial changes in patterning genes, with perturbation, highlight the importance of nuclear integrity to cellular movement in establishing gene expression program in a developmental system.
PMCID: PMC3310051  PMID: 22470437
17.  Multiscale Feature Analysis of Salivary Gland Branching Morphogenesis 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(3):e32906.
Pattern formation in developing tissues involves dynamic spatio-temporal changes in cellular organization and subsequent evolution of functional adult structures. Branching morphogenesis is a developmental mechanism by which patterns are generated in many developing organs, which is controlled by underlying molecular pathways. Understanding the relationship between molecular signaling, cellular behavior and resulting morphological change requires quantification and categorization of the cellular behavior. In this study, tissue-level and cellular changes in developing salivary gland in response to disruption of ROCK-mediated signaling by are modeled by building cell-graphs to compute mathematical features capturing structural properties at multiple scales. These features were used to generate multiscale cell-graph signatures of untreated and ROCK signaling disrupted salivary gland organ explants. From confocal images of mouse submandibular salivary gland organ explants in which epithelial and mesenchymal nuclei were marked, a multiscale feature set capturing global structural properties, local structural properties, spectral, and morphological properties of the tissues was derived. Six feature selection algorithms and multiway modeling of the data was performed to identify distinct subsets of cell graph features that can uniquely classify and differentiate between different cell populations. Multiscale cell-graph analysis was most effective in classification of the tissue state. Cellular and tissue organization, as defined by a multiscale subset of cell-graph features, are both quantitatively distinct in epithelial and mesenchymal cell types both in the presence and absence of ROCK inhibitors. Whereas tensor analysis demonstrate that epithelial tissue was affected the most by inhibition of ROCK signaling, significant multiscale changes in mesenchymal tissue organization were identified with this analysis that were not identified in previous biological studies. We here show how to define and calculate a multiscale feature set as an effective computational approach to identify and quantify changes at multiple biological scales and to distinguish between different states in developing tissues.
PMCID: PMC3293912  PMID: 22403724
18.  Structural Identifiability of Systems Biology Models: A Critical Comparison of Methods 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(11):e27755.
Analysing the properties of a biological system through in silico experimentation requires a satisfactory mathematical representation of the system including accurate values of the model parameters. Fortunately, modern experimental techniques allow obtaining time-series data of appropriate quality which may then be used to estimate unknown parameters. However, in many cases, a subset of those parameters may not be uniquely estimated, independently of the experimental data available or the numerical techniques used for estimation. This lack of identifiability is related to the structure of the model, i.e. the system dynamics plus the observation function. Despite the interest in knowing a priori whether there is any chance of uniquely estimating all model unknown parameters, the structural identifiability analysis for general non-linear dynamic models is still an open question. There is no method amenable to every model, thus at some point we have to face the selection of one of the possibilities. This work presents a critical comparison of the currently available techniques. To this end, we perform the structural identifiability analysis of a collection of biological models. The results reveal that the generating series approach, in combination with identifiability tableaus, offers the most advantageous compromise among range of applicability, computational complexity and information provided.
PMCID: PMC3222653  PMID: 22132135
19.  Analysis of Gap Gene Regulation in a 3D Organism-Scale Model of the Drosophila melanogaster Embryo 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(11):e26797.
The axial bodyplan of Drosophila melanogaster is determined during a process called morphogenesis. Shortly after fertilization, maternal bicoid mRNA is translated into Bicoid (Bcd). This protein establishes a spatially graded morphogen distribution along the anterior-posterior (AP) axis of the embryo. Bcd initiates AP axis determination by triggering expression of gap genes that subsequently regulate each other's expression to form a precisely controlled spatial distribution of gene products. Reaction-diffusion models of gap gene expression on a 1D domain have previously been used to infer complex genetic regulatory network (GRN) interactions by optimizing model parameters with respect to 1D gap gene expression data. Here we construct a finite element reaction-diffusion model with a realistic 3D geometry fit to full 3D gap gene expression data. Though gap gene products exhibit dorsal-ventral asymmetries, we discover that previously inferred gap GRNs yield qualitatively correct AP distributions on the 3D domain only when DV-symmetric initial conditions are employed. Model patterning loses qualitative agreement with experimental data when we incorporate a realistic DV-asymmetric distribution of Bcd. Further, we find that geometry alone is insufficient to account for DV-asymmetries in the final gap gene distribution. Additional GRN optimization confirms that the 3D model remains sensitive to GRN parameter perturbations. Finally, we find that incorporation of 3D data in simulation and optimization does not constrain the search space or improve optimization results.
PMCID: PMC3217930  PMID: 22110594
20.  Dickkopf1 - A New Player in Modelling the Wnt Pathway 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e25550.
The Wnt signaling pathway transducing the stabilization of β-catenin is essential for metazoan embryo development and is misregulated in many diseases such as cancers. In recent years models have been proposed for the Wnt signaling pathway during the segmentation process in developing embryos. Many of these include negative feedback loops where Axin2 plays a key role. However, Axin2 null mice show no segmentation phenotype. We therefore propose a new model where the negative feedback involves Dkk1 rather than Axin2. We show that this model can exhibit the same type of oscillations as the previous models with Axin2 and as observed in experiments. We show that a spatial Wnt gradient can consistently convert this temporal periodicity into the spatial periodicity of somites, provided the oscillations in new cells arising in the presomitic mesoderm are synchronized with the oscillations of older cells. We further investigate the hypothesis that a change in the Wnt level in the tail bud during the later stages of somitogenesis can lengthen the time period of the oscillations and hence the size and separation of the later somites.
PMCID: PMC3192063  PMID: 22022411
21.  Differential Gene Expression in the Siphonophore Nanomia bijuga (Cnidaria) Assessed with Multiple Next-Generation Sequencing Workflows 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(7):e22953.
We investigated differential gene expression between functionally specialized feeding polyps and swimming medusae in the siphonophore Nanomia bijuga (Cnidaria) with a hybrid long-read/short-read sequencing strategy. We assembled a set of partial gene reference sequences from long-read data (Roche 454), and generated short-read sequences from replicated tissue samples that were mapped to the references to quantify expression. We collected and compared expression data with three short-read expression workflows that differ in sample preparation, sequencing technology, and mapping tools. These workflows were Illumina mRNA-Seq, which generates sequence reads from random locations along each transcript, and two tag-based approaches, SOLiD SAGE and Helicos DGE, which generate reads from particular tag sites. Differences in expression results across workflows were mostly due to the differential impact of missing data in the partial reference sequences. When all 454-derived gene reference sequences were considered, Illumina mRNA-Seq detected more than twice as many differentially expressed (DE) reference sequences as the tag-based workflows. This discrepancy was largely due to missing tag sites in the partial reference that led to false negatives in the tag-based workflows. When only the subset of reference sequences that unambiguously have tag sites was considered, we found broad congruence across workflows, and they all identified a similar set of DE sequences. Our results are promising in several regards for gene expression studies in non-model organisms. First, we demonstrate that a hybrid long-read/short-read sequencing strategy is an effective way to collect gene expression data when an annotated genome sequence is not available. Second, our replicated sampling indicates that expression profiles are highly consistent across field-collected animals in this case. Third, the impacts of partial reference sequences on the ability to detect DE can be mitigated through workflow choice and deeper reference sequencing.
PMCID: PMC3146525  PMID: 21829563
22.  Functional Conservation of Cis-Regulatory Elements of Heat-Shock Genes over Long Evolutionary Distances 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(7):e22677.
Transcriptional control of gene regulation is an intricate process that requires precise orchestration of a number of molecular components. Studying its evolution can serve as a useful model for understanding how complex molecular machines evolve. One way to investigate evolution of transcriptional regulation is to test the functions of cis-elements from one species in a distant relative. Previous results suggested that few, if any, tissue-specific promoters from Drosophila are faithfully expressed in C. elegans. Here we show that, in contrast, promoters of fly and human heat-shock genes are upregulated in C. elegans upon exposure to heat. Inducibility under conditions of heat shock may represent a relatively simple “on-off” response, whereas complex expression patterns require integration of multiple signals. Our results suggest that simpler aspects of regulatory logic may be retained over longer periods of evolutionary time, while more complex ones may be diverging more rapidly.
PMCID: PMC3143172  PMID: 21799932
23.  A Snapshot of the Population Structure of Branchiostoma lanceolatum in the Racou Beach, France, during Its Spawning Season 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(4):e18520.
A methodology for inducing spawning in captivity of the lancelet Branchiostoma lanceolatum has been developed recently with animals collected at the Racou beach, in the southern coast of France. An increasing amount of laboratories around the world are now working on the evolution of developmental mechanisms (Evo-Devo) using amphioxus collected in this site. Thus, today, the development of new aquaculture techniques for keeping amphioxus in captivity is needed and the study of the natural conditions at which amphioxus is exposed in the Racou beach during their spawning season becomes necessary. We have investigated the amphioxus distribution, size frequency, and population structure in the Racou beach during its natural spawning season using multivariate methods (redundancy analysis and multiple regression). We found a clear preference of amphioxus for sandy sites, something that seems to be a general behaviour of different amphioxus species around the world. We have also estimated the amphioxus growth rate and we show how the animals are preferentially localized in shallow waters during April and June.
PMCID: PMC3078106  PMID: 21525973
24.  The Effects of Network Neighbours on Protein Evolution 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(4):e18288.
Interacting proteins may often experience similar selection pressures. Thus, we may expect that neighbouring proteins in biological interaction networks evolve at similar rates. This has been previously shown for protein-protein interaction networks. Similarly, we find correlated rates of evolution of neighbours in networks based on co-expression, metabolism, and synthetic lethal genetic interactions. While the correlations are statistically significant, their magnitude is small, with network effects explaining only between 2% and 7% of the variation. The strongest known predictor of the rate of protein evolution remains expression level. We confirmed the previous observation that similar expression levels of neighbours indeed explain their similar evolution rates in protein-protein networks, and showed that the same is true for metabolic networks. In co-expression and synthetic lethal genetic interaction networks, however, neighbouring genes still show somewhat similar evolutionary rates even after simultaneously controlling for expression level, gene essentiality and gene length. Thus, similar expression levels and related functions (as inferred from co-expression and synthetic lethal interactions) seem to explain correlated evolutionary rates of network neighbours across all currently available types of biological networks.
PMCID: PMC3075247  PMID: 21532755
25.  Disruption of the Abdominal-B Promoter Tethering Element Results in a Loss of Long-Range Enhancer-Directed Hox Gene Expression in Drosophila 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(1):e16283.
There are many examples within gene complexes of transcriptional enhancers interacting with only a subset of target promoters. A number of molecular mechanisms including promoter competition, insulators and chromatin looping are thought to play a role in regulating these interactions. At the Drosophila bithorax complex (BX-C), the IAB5 enhancer specifically drives gene expression only from the Abdominal-B (Abd-B) promoter, even though the enhancer and promoter are 55 kb apart and are separated by at least three insulators. In previous studies, we discovered that a 255 bp cis-regulatory module, the promoter tethering element (PTE), located 5′ of the Abd-B transcriptional start site is able to tether IAB5 to the Abd-B promoter in transgenic embryo assays. In this study we examine the functional role of the PTE at the endogenous BX-C using transposon-mediated mutagenesis. Disruption of the PTE by P element insertion results in a loss of enhancer-directed Abd-B expression during embryonic development and a homeotic transformation of abdominal segments. A partial deletion of the PTE and neighboring upstream genomic sequences by imprecise excision of the P element also results in a similar loss of Abd-B expression in embryos. These results demonstrate that the PTE is an essential component of the regulatory network at the BX-C and is required in vivo to mediate specific long-range enhancer-promoter interactions.
PMCID: PMC3025016  PMID: 21283702

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