Deployment of the gene regulatory network (GRN) responsible for skeletogenesis in the embryo of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus is restricted to the large micromere lineage by a double negative regulatory gate. The gate consists of a GRN subcircuit composed of the pmar1 and hesC genes, which encode repressors and are wired in tandem, plus a set of target regulatory genes under hesC control. The skeletogenic cell state is specified initially by micromere-specific expression of these regulatory genes, viz. alx1, ets1, tbrain and tel, plus the gene encoding the Notch ligand Delta. Here we use a recently developed high throughput methodology for experimental cis-regulatory analysis to elucidate the genomic regulatory system controlling alx1 expression in time and embryonic space. The results entirely confirm the double negative gate control system at the cis-regulatory level, including definition of the functional HesC target sites, and add the crucial new information that the drivers of alx1 expression are initially Ets1, and then Alx1 itself plus Ets1. Cis-regulatory analysis demonstrates that these inputs quantitatively account for the magnitude of alx1 expression. Furthermore, the Alx1 gene product not only performs an auto-regulatory role, promoting a fast rise in alx1 expression, but also, when at high levels, it behaves as an autorepressor. A synthetic experiment indicates that this behavior is probably due to dimerization. In summary, the results we report provide the sequence level basis for control of alx1 spatial expression by the double negative gate GRN architecture, and explain the rising, then falling temporal expression profile of the alx1 gene in terms of its auto-regulatory genetic wiring.
Alx1 gene; cis-regulation; skeletogenic micromere lineage; gene regulatory network; tagged reporter assay
At present several entirely different explanatory approaches compete to illuminate the mechanisms by which animal body plans have evolved. Their respective relevance is briefly considered here in the light of modern knowledge of genomes and the regulatory processes by which development is controlled. Just as development is a system property of the regulatory genome, so causal explanation of evolutionary change in developmental process must be considered at a system level. Here I enumerate some mechanistic consequences that follow from the conclusion that evolution of the body plan has occurred by alteration of the structure of developmental gene regulatory networks. The hierarchy and multiple additional design features of these networks act to produce Boolean regulatory state specification functions at upstream phases of development of the body plan. These are created by the logic outputs of network subcircuits, and in modern animals these outputs are impervious to continuous adaptive variation unlike genes operating more peripherally in the network.
GRN evolution; GRN selection
As gene regulatory network models encompass more and more of the specification processes underlying sea urchin embryonic development, topological themes emerge that imply the existence of structural network “building blocks”. These are subcircuits which perform given logic operations in the spatial control of gene expression. The various parts of the sea urchin gene regulatory networks offer instances of the same subcircuit topologies accomplishing the same developmental logic functions but using different genes. These subcircuits are dedicated to specific developmental functions, unlike simpler “motifs”, and may indicate a repertoire of specific devices of which developmental gene regulatory networks are composed.
Animal development is an elaborate process programmed by genomic regulatory instructions. Regulatory genes encode transcription factors and signal molecules, and their expression is under the control of cis-regulatory modules that define the logic of transcriptional responses to the inputs of other regulatory genes. The functional linkages amongst regulatory genes constitute the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) that govern cell specification and patterning in development. Constructing such networks requires identification of the regulatory genes involved and characterization of their temporal and spatial expression patterns. Interactions (activation/repression) among transcription factors or signals can be investigated by large-scale perturbation analysis, in which the function of each gene is specifically blocked. Resultant expression changes are then integrated to identify direct linkages, and to reveal the structure of the GRN. Predicted GRN linkages can be tested and verified by cis-regulatory analysis. The explanatory power of the GRN was shown in the lineage specification of sea urchin endomesoderm. Acquiring such networks is essential for a systematic and mechanistic understanding of the developmental process.
gene regulatory network; development; cis-regulatory analysis; sea urchin
Cis-regulatory DNA sequences causally mediate patterns of gene expression, but efficient experimental analysis of these control systems has remained challenging. Here we develop a new version of “barcoded" DNA-tag reporters, “Nanotags" that permit simultaneous quantitative analysis of up to 130 distinct cis-regulatory modules (CRMs). The activities of these reporters are measured in single experiments by the NanoString RNA counting method and other quantitative procedures. We demonstrate the efficiency of the Nanotag method by simultaneously measuring hourly temporal activities of 126 CRMs from 46 genes in the developing sea urchin embryo, otherwise a virtually impossible task. Nanotags are also used in gene perturbation experiments to reveal cis-regulatory responses of many CRMs at once. Nanotag methodology can be applied to many research areas, ranging from gene regulatory networks to functional and evolutionary genomics.
Regulatory networks of transcription factors and signaling molecules lie at the heart of development. Their architecture implements logic functions whose execution propels cells from one regulatory state to the next, thus driving development forward. As an example of a subcircuit that translates transcriptional input into developmental output we consider a particularly simple case, the regulatory processes underlying pigment cell formation in sea urchin embryos. The regulatory events in this process can be represented as elementary logic functions.
Expression of the nodal gene initiates the gene regulatory network which establishes the transcriptional specification of the oral ectoderm in the sea urchin embryo. This gene encodes a TGFβ ligand, and in Strongylocentrotus purpuratus its transcription is activated in the presumptive oral ectoderm at about the 30-cell stage. Thereafter Nodal signaling occurs among all cells of the oral ectoderm territory, and nodal expression is required for expression of oral ectoderm regulatory genes. The cis-regulatory system of the nodal gene transduces anisotropically distributed cytoplasmic cues that distinguish the future oral and aboral domains of the early embryo. Here we establish the genomic basis for the initiation and maintenance of nodal gene expression in the oral ectoderm. Functional cis-regulatory control modules of the nodal gene were identified by interspecific sequence conservation. A 5′ cis-regulatory module functions both to initiate expression of the nodal gene and to maintain its expression by means of feedback input from the Nodal signal transduction system. These functions are mediated respectively by target sites for bZIP transcription factors, and by SMAD target sites. At least one SMAD site is also needed for the initiation of expression. An intron module also contains SMAD sites which respond to Nodal feedback, and in addition acts to repress vegetal expression. These observations explain the main features of nodal expression in the oral ectoderm: since the activity of bZIP factors is redox sensitive, and the initial polarization of oral vs aboral fate is manifested in a redox differential, the bZIP sites account for the activation of nodal on the oral side; and since the immediate early signal transduction response factors for Nodal are SMAD factors, the SMAD sites account for the feedback maintenance of nodal gene expression.
Nodal; Oral ectoderm; Gene regulatory network; Community effect; TGF-beta; bZIP; SMAD; Sea urchin; Positive feedback regulation; cis-regulatory analysis
Alteration of the functional organization of the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) that control development of the body plan causes evolutionary change in animal morphology. A major mechanism of evolutionary change in GRN structure is alteration of cis-regulatory modules that determine regulatory gene expression. Both evolutionary conservation and evolutionary innovation must be considered in terms of GRN structure. Here we consider the causes and consequences of GRN evolution, both from an a priori point of view, and in light of extensive recent research on developmental regulatory alterations occurring at different levels of GRN hierarchy. Some GRN subcircuits are of great antiquity while other aspects are highly flexible and thus in any given genome more recent. Both evolutionary conservation and evolutionary innovation occur at the level of whole GRN subcircuits. This mosaic view of the evolution of GRN structure explains major aspects of evolutionary process, such as hierarchical phylogeny and discontinuities of paleontological change and stasis.
Accurate measurements of transcript abundance are a prerequisite to understand gene activity in development. Using the NanoString nCounter, an RNA counting device, we measured the prevalence of 172 transcription factors and signaling molecules in early sea urchin development. These measurements show high fidelity over more than five orders of magnitude down to a few transcripts per embryo. Most of the genes included are locally restricted in their spatial expression, and contribute to the divergent regulatory states of cells in the developing embryo. In order to obtain high-resolution expression, profiles from fertilization to late gastrulation samples were collected at hourly intervals. The measured time courses agree well with, and substantially extend, prior relative abundance measurements obtained by quantitative PCR. High temporal resolution permits sequences of successively activated genes to be precisely delineated providing an ancillary tool for assembling maps of gene regulatory networks. The data are available via an interactive website for quick plotting of selected time courses.
Transcription factor; Gene expression time course; mRNA prevalence measurement; Embryogenesis
The “Community Effect” denotes intra-territorial signaling amongst cells which constitute a particular tissue or embryonic progenitor field. The cells of the territory express the same transcriptional regulatory state, and the intra-territorial signaling is essential to maintenance of this specific regulatory state. The structure of the underlying gene regulatory network (GRN) subcircuitry explains the genomically wired mechanism by which community effect signaling is linked to the continuing transcriptional generation of the territorial regulatory state. A clear example is afforded by the oral ectoderm GRN of the sea urchin embryo where cis-regulatory evidence, experimental embryology, and network analysis combine to provide a complete picture. We review this example and consider less well known but similar cases in other developing systems where the same subcircuit GRN topology is present. To resolve mechanistic issues that arise in considering how community effect signaling could operate to produce its observed effects, we construct and analyze the behavior of a quantitative model of community effect signaling in the sea urchin embryo oral ectoderm. Community effect network topology could constitute part of the genomic regulatory code that defines transcriptional function in multicellular tissues composed of cells in contact, and hence may have arisen as a metazoan developmental strategy.
Community effect; Intradomain signaling; sea urchin embryo; nodal gene regulation
The gene regulatory network (GRN) established experimentally for the pre-gastrular sea urchin embryo provides causal explanations of the biological functions required for spatial specification of embryonic regulatory states. Here we focus on the structure of the GRN which controls the progressive increase in complexity of territorial regulatory states during embryogenesis; and on the types of modular subcircuits of which the GRN is composed. Each of these subcircuit topologies executes a particular operation of spatial information processing. The GRN architecture reflects the particular mode of embryogenesis represented by sea urchin development. Network structure not only specifies the linkages constituting the genomic regulatory code for development, but also indicates the various regulatory requirements of regional developmental processes.
Subcircuit structure/function; Spatial transcriptional regulation; Embryonic specification
The genomic cis-regulatory systems controlling regulatory gene expression usually include multiple modules. The regulatory output of such systems at any given time depends on which module is directing the function of the basal transcription apparatus, and ultimately on the transcription factor inputs into that module. Here we examine regulation of the S. purpuratus tbrain gene, a required activator of the skeletogenic specification state in the lineage descendant from the embryo micromeres. Alternate cis-regulatory modules were found to convey skeletogenic expression in reporter constructs. To determine their relative developmental functions in context, we made use of recombineered BAC constructs containing a GFP reporter, and of derivatives from which specific modules had been deleted. The outputs of the various constructs were observed spatially by GFP fluorescence and quantitatively over time by QPCR. In the context of the complete genomic locus, early skeletogenic expression is controlled by an intron enhancer plus a proximal region containing a HesC site as predicted from network analysis. From ingression onward, however, a dedicated distal module utilizing positive Ets1/2 inputs contributes to definitive expression in the skeletogenic mesenchyme. This module also mediates a newly-discovered negative Erg input which excludes non-skeletogenic mesodermal expression.
tbrain gene; Gene regulatory network; cis-Regulatory analysis; Skeletogenic micromere lineage; Recombinant BAC
Gene regulatory networks for development underlie cell fate specification and differentiation. Network topology, logic and dynamics can be obtained by thorough experimental analysis. Our understanding of the gene regulatory network controlling endomesoderm specification in the sea urchin embryo has attained an advanced level such that it explains developmental phenomenology. Here we review how the network explains the mechanisms utilized in development to control the formation of dynamic expression patterns of transcription factors and signaling molecules. The network represents the genomic program controlling timely activation of specification and differentiation genes in the correct embryonic lineages. It can also be used to study evolution of body plans. We demonstrate how comparing the sea urchin gene regulatory network to that of the sea star and to that of later developmental stages in the sea urchin, reveals mechanisms underlying the origin of evolutionary novelty. The experimentally based gene regulatory network for endomesoderm specification in the sea urchin embryo provides unique insights into the system level properties of cell fate specification and its evolution.
gene regulation in development; evolution; systems level properties
The current gene regulatory network (GRN) for the sea urchin embryo pertains to pregastrular specification functions in the endomesodermal territories. Here we extend gene regulatory network analysis to the adjacent oral and aboral ectoderm territories over the same period. A large fraction of the regulatory genes predicted by the sea urchin genome project and shown in ancillary studies to be expressed in either oral or aboral ectoderm by 24h are included, though universally expressed and pan-ectodermal regulatory genes are in general not. The loci of expression of these genes have been determined by whole mount in situ hybridization. We have carried out a global perturbation analysis in which expression of each gene was interrupted by introduction of morpholino antisense oligonucleotide, and the effects on all other genes were measured quantitatively, both by QPCR and by a new instrumental technology (NanoString Technologies nCounter Analysis System). At its current stage the network model, built in BioTapestry, includes 22 genes encoding transcription factors, 4 genes encoding known signaling ligands, and 3 genes that are yet unknown but are predicted to perform specific roles. Evidence emerged from the analysis pointing to distinctive subcircuit features observed earlier in other parts of the GRN, including a double negative transcriptional regulatory gate, and dynamic state lockdowns by feedback interactions. While much of the regulatory apparatus is downstream of Nodal signaling, as expected from previous observations, there are also cohorts of independently activated oral and aboral ectoderm regulatory genes, and we predict yet unidentified signaling interactions between oral and aboral territories.
Sea urchin embryo ectoderm; Regulatory genes; Embryonic specification
Genetic regulatory networks (GRNs) are complex, large-scale, and spatially and temporally distributed. These characteristics impose challenging demands on computational GRN modeling tools, and there is a need for custom modeling tools. In this paper, we report on our ongoing development of BioTapestry, an open source, freely available computational tool designed specifically for GRN modeling. We also outline our future development plans, and give some examples of current applications of BioTapestry.
Theodor Boveri’s major intellectual contribution was his focus on the causality of nuclear chromosomal determinants for embryological development. His initial experimental attempt to demonstrate that the character of the developing embryo is determined by nuclear rather than cytoplasmic factors was launched in 1889. The experimental design was to fertilize enucleate sea urchin eggs with sperm of another species that produces a distinguishably different embryonic morphology. Boveri’s “hybrid merogone” experiment provided what he initially thought was empirical evidence for the nuclear control of development. However, for subtle reasons, the data were not interpretable and the experiment was repeated and contested. At the end of his life, Boveri was finally able to explain the technical difficulties that had beset the original experiment. However, by 1902 Boveri had carried out his famous polyspermy experiments, which provided decisive evidence for the role of nuclear chromosomal determinants in embryogenesis. Here we present the history of the hybrid merogone experiment as an important case of conceptual reasoning paired with (often difficult) experimental approaches. We then trace the further history of the merogone and normal species hybrid approaches that this experiment had set in train, and review their results from the standpoint of current insights. The history of Boveri’s hybrid merogone experiment suggests important lessons about the interplay between what we call “models”, the specific intellectual statements we conceive about how biology works, and the sometimes difficult task of generating experimental proof for these concepts.
Hybrid merogones; Species hybrids; Genomic control; Sea urchin embryos
With the determination of its genome sequence the utility of the sea urchin model system increases. The phylogenetic position of the sea urchin among the deuterostomes allows for informative comparisons to vertebrate research models. A combined whole genome shotgun and bacterial artificial chromosome based strategy yielded a high quality draft genome sequence of 814 Mb. The predicted gene set estimated to include 23,300 genes was annotated and compared to those of other metazoan animals. Gene family expansions in the innate immune system are large and offer a first glimpse of how the long-lived sea urchin defends itself. The gene sets of the sea urchin place it firmly among the deuterostomes and indicate that various gene family -specific expansions and contractions characterize the evolution of animal genomes rather than the invention of new genes
evolution; gene sets; gene homology
The gatae gene of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus is orthologous to vertebrate gata-4,5,6 genes. This gene is expressed in the endomesoderm in the blastula and later the gut of the embryo, and is required for normal development. A gatae BAC containing a GFP reporter knocked into exon one of the gene was able to reproduce all aspects of endogenous gatae expression in the embryo. To identify putative gatae cis-regulatory modules we carried out an interspecific sequence conservation analysis with respect to a Lytechinus variegatus gatae BAC, which revealed 25 conserved non-coding sequence patches. These were individually tested in gene transfer experiments, and two modules capable of driving localized reporter expression in the embryo were identified. Module 10 produces early expression in mesoderm and endoderm cells up to the early gastrula stage, while module 24 generates late endodermal expression at gastrula and pluteus stages. Module 10 was then deleted from the gatae BAC by reciprocal recombination, resulting in total loss of reporter expression in the time frame in which it is normally active. Similar deletion of module 24 led to ubiquitous GFP expression in the gastrula and pluteus. These results show that Module 10 is uniquely necessary and sufficient to account for the early phase of gatae expression during endomesoderm specification. In addition they imply a functional cis-regulatory module exclusion, whereby only a single module can associate with the basal promoter and drive gene expression at any given time.
sea urchin; gene regulation; GATA factors; cis-regulatory analysis; gatae
A global scan of transcription factor usage in the sea urchin embryo was carried out in the context of the S.purpuratus genome sequencing project, and results from six individual studies are here considered. Transcript prevalence data were obtained for over 280 regulatory genes encoding sequence-specific transcription factors of every known family, but excluding genes encoding zinc finger proteins. This is a statistically inclusive proxy for the total “regulome” of the sea urchin genome. Close to 80% of the regulome is expressed at significant levels by the late gastrula stage. Most regulatory genes must be used repeatedly for different functions as development progresses. An evolutionary implication is that animal complexity at the stage when the regulome first evolved was far simpler than even the last common bilaterian ancestor, and is thus of deep antiquity.
Regulome; Transcription factor usage; Indirect development
Comparative sequence analysis is an effective and increasingly common way to identify cis-regulatory regions in animal genomes.
We describe three tools for comparative analysis of pairs of BAC-sized genomic regions. Paircomp is a tool that does windowed (ungapped) comparisons of two sequences and reports all matches above a set threshold. FamilyRelationsII is a graphical viewer for comparisons that enables interactive exploration of several different kinds of comparisons. Cartwheel is a Web site and compute-cluster management system used to execute and store comparisons for display by FamilyRelationsII. These tools are specialized for the discovery of cis-regulatory regions in animal genomes. All tools and their source code are freely available at .
These tools have been shown to effectively identify regulatory regions in echinoderms, mammals, and nematodes.