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1.  Evolutionarily conserved morphogenetic movements at the vertebrate head–trunk interface coordinate the transport and assembly of hypopharyngeal structures 
Developmental Biology  2014;390(2):231-246.
The vertebrate head–trunk interface (occipital region) has been heavily remodelled during evolution, and its development is still poorly understood. In extant jawed vertebrates, this region provides muscle precursors for the throat and tongue (hypopharyngeal/hypobranchial/hypoglossal muscle precursors, HMP) that take a stereotype path rostrally along the pharynx and are thought to reach their target sites via active migration. Yet, this projection pattern emerged in jawless vertebrates before the evolution of migratory muscle precursors. This suggests that a so far elusive, more basic transport mechanism must have existed and may still be traceable today.
Here we show for the first time that all occipital tissues participate in well-conserved cell movements. These cell movements are spearheaded by the occipital lateral mesoderm and ectoderm that split into two streams. The rostrally directed stream projects along the floor of the pharynx and reaches as far rostrally as the floor of the mandibular arch and outflow tract of the heart. Notably, this stream leads and engulfs the later emerging HMP, neural crest cells and hypoglossal nerve. When we (i) attempted to redirect hypobranchial/hypoglossal muscle precursors towards various attractants, (ii) placed non-migratory muscle precursors into the occipital environment or (iii) molecularly or (iv) genetically rendered muscle precursors non-migratory, they still followed the trajectory set by the occipital lateral mesoderm and ectoderm. Thus, we have discovered evolutionarily conserved morphogenetic movements, driven by the occipital lateral mesoderm and ectoderm, that ensure cell transport and organ assembly at the head–trunk interface.
•At the vertebrate head–trunk interface, all tissues engage in stereotype cell movements.•A ventrally–rostrally directed stream of cells leads along the floor of the pharynx to the developing jaw and outflow tract of the heart.•The cell movements are spearheaded by the lateral mesoderm and surface ectoderm; muscle precursors for throat and tongue muscles (hypopharyngeal muscles); neural crest cells and outgrowing axons of the hypoglossal nerve follow.•Hypopharyngeal muscle precursors follow the trajectory set by the lateral mesoderm and ectoderm, even when challenged with ectopic attractants or when rendered non-migratory.•The newly discovered cell movements are the likely ground state for cell transport and organ assembly at the head–trunk interface before actively migrating muscle precursors evolved in “bony” (osteichthyan) vertebrates.
PMCID: PMC4010675  PMID: 24662046
Evolution of vertebrate developmental mechanisms; Head–trunk interface; Morphogenetic movements; Occipital lateral mesoderm; Occipital somites; Occipital ectoderm; Occipital neural crest; Hypobranchial/hypoglossal muscle; Migratory muscle precursors; Floor of pharynx; Pharyngeal arches; Circumpharyngeal route; Zebrafish; Xenopus; Chicken; Mouse
2.  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
3.  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
4.  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
5.  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
6.  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
7.  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
8.  Comparative genomics of Lbx loci reveals conservation of identical Lbx ohnologs in bony vertebrates 
Lbx/ladybird genes originated as part of the metazoan cluster of Nk homeobox genes. In all animals investigated so far, both the protostome genes and the vertebrate Lbx1 genes were found to play crucial roles in neural and muscle development. Recently however, additional Lbx genes with divergent expression patterns were discovered in amniotes. Early in the evolution of vertebrates, two rounds of whole genome duplication are thought to have occurred, during which 4 Lbx genes were generated. Which of these genes were maintained in extant vertebrates, and how these genes and their functions evolved, is not known.
Here we searched vertebrate genomes for Lbx genes and discovered novel members of this gene family. We also identified signature genes linked to particular Lbx loci and traced the remnants of 4 Lbx paralogons (two of which retain Lbx genes) in amniotes. In teleosts, that have undergone an additional genome duplication, 8 Lbx paralogons (three of which retain Lbx genes) were found. Phylogenetic analyses of Lbx and Lbx-associated genes show that in extant, bony vertebrates only Lbx1- and Lbx2-type genes are maintained. Of these, some Lbx2 sequences evolved faster and were probably subject to neofunctionalisation, while Lbx1 genes may have retained more features of the ancestral Lbx gene. Genes at Lbx1 and former Lbx4 loci are more closely related, as are genes at Lbx2 and former Lbx3 loci. This suggests that during the second vertebrate genome duplication, Lbx1/4 and Lbx2/3 paralogons were generated from the duplicated Lbx loci created during the first duplication event.
Our study establishes for the first time the evolutionary history of Lbx genes in bony vertebrates, including the order of gene duplication events, gene loss and phylogenetic relationships. Moreover, we identified genetic hallmarks for each of the Lbx paralogons that can be used to trace Lbx genes as other vertebrate genomes become available. Significantly, we show that bony vertebrates only retained copies of Lbx1 and Lbx2 genes, with some Lbx2 genes being highly divergent. Thus, we have established a base on which the evolution of Lbx gene function in vertebrate development can be evaluated.
PMCID: PMC2446394  PMID: 18541024
9.  Comparative genomics of vertebrate Fox cluster loci 
BMC Genomics  2006;7:271.
Vertebrate genomes contain numerous duplicate genes, many of which are organised into paralagous regions indicating duplication of linked groups of genes. Comparison of genomic organisation in different lineages can often allow the evolutionary history of such regions to be traced. A classic example of this is the Hox genes, where the presence of a single continuous Hox cluster in amphioxus and four vertebrate clusters has allowed the genomic evolution of this region to be established. Fox transcription factors of the C, F, L1 and Q1 classes are also organised in clusters in both amphioxus and humans. However in contrast to the Hox genes, only two clusters of paralogous Fox genes have so far been identified in the Human genome and the organisation in other vertebrates is unknown.
To uncover the evolutionary history of the Fox clusters, we report on the comparative genomics of these loci. We demonstrate two further paralogous regions in the Human genome, and identify orthologous regions in mammalian, chicken, frog and teleost genomes, timing the duplications to before the separation of the actinopterygian and sarcopterygian lineages. An additional Fox class, FoxS, was also found to reside in this duplicated genomic region.
Comparison of loci identifies the pattern of gene duplication, loss and cluster break up through multiple lineages, and suggests FoxS1 is a likely remnant of Fox cluster duplication.
PMCID: PMC1634998  PMID: 17062144

Results 1-9 (9)