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Toward a unified model of developmental timing: A "molting" approach.


Animal development requires temporal coordination between recurrent processes and sequential events, but the underlying timing mechanisms are not yet understood. The molting cycle of C. elegans provides an ideal system to study this basic problem. We recently characterized LIN-42, which is related to the circadian clock protein PERIOD, as a key component of the developmental timer underlying rhythmic molting cycles. In this context, LIN-42 coordinates epithelial stem cell dynamics with progression of the molting cycle. Repeated actions of LIN-42 may enable the reprogramming of seam cell temporal fates, while stage-specific actions of LIN-42 and other heterochronic genes select fates appropriate for upcoming, rather than passing, life stages. Here, we discuss the possible configuration of the molting timer, which may include interconnected positive and negative regulatory loops among lin-42, conserved nuclear hormone receptors such as NHR-23 and -25, and the let-7 family of microRNAs. Physiological and environmental conditions may modulate the activities of particular components of this molting timer. Finding that LIN-42 regulates both a sleep-like behavioral state and epidermal stem cell dynamics further supports the model of functional conservation between LIN-42 and mammalian PERIOD proteins. The molting timer may therefore represent a primitive form of a central biological clock and provide a general paradigm for the integration of rhythmic and developmental processes.

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