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Developmental robustness in the Caenorhabditis elegans embryo.

  • Author(s): Maduro, Morris F
  • et al.

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Developmental robustness is the ability of an embryo to develop normally despite many sources of variation, from differences in the environment to stochastic cell-to-cell differences in gene expression. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans exhibits an additional level of robustness: Unlike most other animals, the embryonic pattern of cell divisions is nearly identical from animal to animal. The endoderm (gut) lineage is an ideal model for studying such robustness as the juvenile gut has a simple anatomy, consisting of 20 cells that are derived from a single cell, E, and the gene regulatory network that controls E specification shares features with developmental regulatory networks in many other systems, including genetic redundancy, parallel pathways, and feed-forward loops. Early studies were initially concerned with identifying the genes in the network, whereas recent work has focused on understanding how the endoderm produces a robust developmental output in the face of many sources of variation. Genetic control exists at three levels of endoderm development: Progenitor specification, cell divisions within the developing gut, and maintenance of gut differentiation. Recent findings show that specification genes regulate all three of these aspects of gut development, and that mutant embryos can experience a "partial" specification state in which some, but not all, E descendants adopt a gut fate. Ongoing studies using newer quantitative and genome-wide methods promise further insights into how developmental gene-regulatory networks buffer variation.

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