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Robust and precise morphogen-mediated patterning: trade-offs, constraints and mechanisms.


The patterning of many developing tissues is organized by morphogens. Genetic and environmental perturbations of gene expression, protein synthesis and ligand binding are among the sources of unreliability that limit the accuracy and precision of morphogen-mediated patterning. While it has been found that the robustness of morphogen gradients to the perturbation of morphogen synthesis can be enhanced by particular mechanisms, how such mechanisms affect robustness to other perturbations, such as to receptor synthesis for the same morphogen, has been little explored. Here, we investigate the interplay between the robustness of patterning to the changes in receptor synthesis and morphogen synthesis and to the effects of cell-to-cell variability. Our analysis elucidates the trade-offs and constraints that arise as a result of achieving these three performance objectives simultaneously in the context of simple, steady-state morphogen gradients formed by diffusion and receptor-mediated uptake. Analysis of the interdependence between length scales of patterning and these performance objectives reveals several potential mechanisms for mitigating such trade-offs and constraints. One involves downregulation of receptor synthesis in the morphogen source, while another involves the presence of non-signalling cell-surface morphogen-binding molecules. Both of these mechanisms occur in Drosophila wing discs during their patterning. We computationally elucidate how these mechanisms improve the robustness and precision of morphogen-mediated patterning.

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