Simulation study on effects of signaling network structure on the
developmental increase in complexity
The developmental increase in structural complexity in multicellular life forms depends on local, often non-periodic differences in gene expression. These depend on a network of gene-gene interactions coded within the organismal genome. To better understand how genomic information generates complex expression patterns, I have modeled the pattern forming behavior of small artificial genomes in virtual blastoderm embryos. I varied several basic properties of these genomic signaling networks, such as the number of genes, the distributions of positive (inductive) and negative (repressive) interactions, and the strengths of gene-gene interactions, and analyzed their effects on developmental pattern formation. The results show how even simple genomes can generate complex non-periodic patterns under suitable conditions. They also show how the frequency of complex patterns depended on the numbers and relative arrangements of positive and negative interactions. For example, negative co-regulation of signaling pathway components increased the likelihood of (complex) patterns relative to differential negative regulation of the pathway components. Interestingly, neither quantitative differences either in strengths of signaling interactions nor multiple response thresholds to signal concentration (as in morphogen gradients) were essential for formation of multiple, spatially unique cell types. Thus, with combinatorial code of gene regulation and hierarchical signaling interactions, it is theoretically possible to organize metazoan embryogenesis with just a small fraction of the metazoan genome. Because even small networks can generate complex patterns when they contain a suitable set of connections, evolution of metazoan complexity may have depended more on selection for favourable configurations of signaling interactions than on the increase in numbers of regulatory genes.