Regulation of spatio-temporal gene expression in diverse cell and tissue types is a critical aspect of development. Progression through Caenorhabditis elegans vulval development leads to the generation of seven distinct vulval cell types (vulA, vulB1, vulB2, vulC, vulD, vulE, and vulF), each with its own unique gene expression profile. The mechanisms that establish the precise spatial patterning of these mature cell types are largely unknown. Dissection of the gene regulatory networks involved in vulval patterning and differentiation would help us understand how cells generate a spatially defined pattern of cell fates during organogenesis. We disrupted the activity of 508 transcription factors via RNAi and assayed the expression of ceh-2, a marker for vulB fate during the L4 stage. From this screen, we identified the tailless ortholog nhr-67 as a novel regulator of gene expression in multiple vulval cell types. We find that one way in which nhr-67 maintains cell identity is by restricting inappropriate cell fusion events in specific vulval cells, namely vulE and vulF. nhr-67 exhibits a dynamic expression pattern in the vulval cells and interacts with three other transcriptional regulators cog-1 (Nkx6.1/6.2), lin-11 (LIM), and egl-38 (Pax2/5/8) to generate the composite expression patterns of their downstream targets. We provide evidence that egl-38 regulates gene expression in vulB1, vulC, vulD, vulE, as well as vulF cells. We demonstrate that the pairwise interactions between these regulatory genes are complex and vary among the seven cell types. We also discovered a striking regulatory circuit that affects a subset of the vulval lineages: cog-1 and nhr-67 inhibit both one another and themselves. We postulate that the differential levels and combinatorial patterns of lin-11, cog-1, and nhr-67 expression are a part of a regulatory code for the mature vulval cell types.
During development, in which the single-celled egg generates a whole organism, cells become different from each other and form patterns of types of cells. It is these spatially defined fate patterns that underlie the formation of complex organs. Regulatory molecules called transcription factors influence the fate patterns that cells adopt. Understanding the role of these transcription factors and their interactions with other genes could tell us how cells establish a certain pattern of cell fates. This study focuses on studying how the seven cell types of the Caenorhabditis elegans vulva arise. This organ is one of the most intensively studied, and while the signaling network that initiates vulval development and sets the gross pattern of cell differentiation is well understood, the network of transcription factors that specifies the final cell fates is not understood. Here, we identify nhr-67, a new transcription factor that regulates patterning of cell fates in this organ. Transcription factors do not necessarily act alone, and we explore how NHR-67 works with three other regulatory factors (each with human homologs) to specify the different properties of the vulval cells. We also demonstrate that the interconnections of these transcription factors differ between these seven diverse cell types, which may partially account for how these cells acquire a certain pattern of cell fates.