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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Precision and Robustness in the Interpretation of Morphogen Gradients

  • Author(s): Zhang, Peng Cheng
  • Advisor(s): Lander, Arthur D.
  • et al.

Developmental pattern formation is orchestrated by diffusible signaling molecules, termed morphogens, that form gradients from which cells can determine positionally appropriate fates. Stochasticity in morphogen binding, signal transduction, and gene expression create local cell-to-cell variability in the readout of morphogen gradients. However, little is known about the actual levels of noise in morphogen gradient responses, or the mechanisms that might control it. To investigate this, I quantified the transcriptional activity noise, protein expression noise, and protein half-life of optomotor blind (omb), one of the downstream targets of the morphogen Dpp in the Drosophila larval wing imaginal disc. Using combined fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) with intronic probes, immunofluorescence, image segmentation and image analysis, I observed a very high level of transcriptional variability characterized by coefficients of variation (CV) as high as ~110%, in the cells in which omb plays a central role in specifying the location of wing vein primordium L5. However, the half-life of the Omb protein was found to be very long, ~ 6 hours, which would be expected to provide significant temporal filtering of the transcriptional noise. I showed that the reduction in noise from transcript to protein is sufficient to account for the precision of the positional information that patterns vein L5.

I also investigated why the positioning of vein L5 is remarkably robust to genetic manipulation that change the shape of the Dpp morphogen gradient. I observed that patters of Dpp signaling and Omb expression are not constant during larval development, but change continuously, and not always in concert with each other. By taking into account the long half-life of Omb it was possible to build a model that explains both these movements and the remarkable robustness of L5 patterning to changes in Dpp gradient shape.

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