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Evolutionarily conserved developmental pathways

Gastrulation and posterior patterning: A conserved role for Caudal

In Drosophila and C. elegans, the caudal gene is localized in the posterior region of the embryo and regulates posterior gene expression. In vertebrates, a number of genes belonging to the caudal family have been isolated and characterized. All the genes studied exhibit a predominantly posterior localization during gastrulation and neurulation. It has been suggested that the caudal genes play a role in the patterning of the anterior-posterior axis probably in part by regulating members of the Hox gene family. Vertebrate caudal genes are an integral component of the posterior organizer (Epstein, 1997).

During early embryogenesis in Drosophila, Caudal mRNA is distributed as a gradient with its highest level at the posterior of the embryo. This suggests that the Caudal homeodomain transcription factor might play a role in establishing the posterior domains of the embryo, which undergo gastrulation and give rise to the posterior gut. By generating embryos lacking both the maternal and zygotic mRNA contribution, caudal has been shown to be essential for invagination of the hindgut primordium and for further specification and development of the hindgut. Mature embryos lacking cad activity (maternal and/or zygotic contributions) were examined to assess the requirement for cad in establishing the structures that arise from the posterior ~15% of the blastoderm embryo, namely the posterior midgut, Malpighian tubules and hindgut (Wu, 1998).

The stages of gastrulation can be observationally followed by using expression of brachyenteron byn as a marker for the hindgut primordium. Brachyenteron is a homolog of vertebrate Brachyury. In the wild-type embryo, byn is expressed in a ring at the circumference of the amnioproctodeal plate. The edges of this ring come together as the posterior midgut primordium invaginates during stages 6 and 7; the ring of the hindgut primordium then sinks inward during stage 8 and is completely internalized by the end of stage 9. The zygotically expressed cad stripe and the posterior wingless stripe are also expressed in the bordering ring (i.e., the hindgut primordium) of the invaginating amnioproctodeal plate. Strikingly, in cad-deficient embryos, the byn-expressing ring of hindgut primordium draws together, but fails to invaginate, remaining on the outside of the embryo. Thus, although internalization of the Malpighian tubule and posterior midgut primordia is normal in cad-deficient embryos, the gastrulation movements necessary for internalization of the hindgut primordium do not occur in embryos lacking cad activity (Wu, 1998).

The absence of the hindgut primordium from cad-deficient embryos suggests that Caudal regulates genes required for establishing and/or maintaining the hindgut primordium. tailless, forkhead, byn, bowl and wingless are likely targets for cad regulation, since all are required for some aspect of hindgut development: the hindgut is missing from both tll and fkh embryos, and severely reduced in wg, byn and bowl embryos. bowl, also called bowel, codes for a zinc finger transcription factor related to odd-skipped. Since maternally provided Caudal, which persists only through the blastoderm stage, is sufficient for essentially normal hindgut formation, the fact that all of these genes are expressed at the posterior of the embryo during the blastoderm stage means that they are potential targets for regulation by Caudal. The effect of absence of maternal and/or zygotic cad activity on the expression of these genes was assessed by in situ hybridization with appropriate probes. For tll, byn and bowl, absence of cad activity does not result in a detectable effect on expression. As described below, however, cad activity is essential for expression of fkh and wg. Both maternal and zygotic cad contributions are necessary for posterior wg expression. During early stage 5, just prior to its expression in 14 stripes that are required to establish the segmental pattern, wg is expressed in two domains at the anterior, and in a broad posterior stripe. This terminal wg stripe is located at approximately 8-12% EL, overlapping with the posterior of the zygotic cad stripe and with the position of the hindgut and Malpighian tubule primordia in the blastoderm fate map. Expression of the wg terminal stripe has been shown to be independent of other segmentation genes, but has not been otherwise characterized. All embryos from mutant cad germline mothers (even those expressing zygotic cad) fail to express the terminal stripe of wg. These results demonstrate that maternal cad activity is essential for the transcription of wg in the terminal stripe. Among embryos from wg heterozygous parents, approximately one-quarter (presumably those lacking only the zygotic component of cad expression) lack the terminal wg stripe. Thus both maternal and zygotic cad activities are required for expression of the terminal wg stripe (Wu, 1998).

The expression of the early cap of fkh also requires cad activity; approximately half of the embryos from mutant cad germline females mated to cad heterozygous males (i. e., cad m-z - embryos) show a dramatic reduction in both the size and intensity of the posterior cap of fkh expression. However, if cad is supplied either maternally or zygotically, fkh expression is normal. Thus expression of the posterior cap of fkh requires cad activity, which can be provided either maternally or zygotically. Later, by stage 10, fkh expression is as strong in cad-deficient as in wild-type embryos, indicating that this later expression is independent of cad activity. Since tll and hkb are also required to activate early fkh expression but are not themselves regulated by cad, cad must act combinatorially with these two genes to promote early fkh expression (Wu, 1998).

cad also regulates wg in combination with other genes. In addition to the demonstrated requirement for cad, expression of the posterior wg stripe requires positive input from fkh and tll, since the stripe is absent from the respective mutant embryos. Since embryos lacking either maternal or zygotic cad fail to express the posterior wg stripe, but still express fkh and tll, cad must act combinatorially with fkh and tll to promote formation of the posterior wg stripe. Expression of the terminal stripe thus requires the combinatorial action of cad, tll and fkh; the posterior limit of the stripe is known to be defined by repression by hkb (Wu, 1998).

The failure of the hindgut to become internalized in caudal-deficient embryos raises the question of whether cad might regulate a zygotically expressed gene required for the invagination of the amnioproctodeal plate. One gene known to be required for gastrulation is folded gastrulation; fog mutant embryos lack not only the posterior midgut, but, as revealed by anti-Crb staining, the Malpighian tubules and hindgut as well. In the blastoderm stage embryo, fog expression is first activated in the region that will become the ventral furrow; shortly thereafter, expression is initiated in a posterior cap, in the region that will become the amnioproctodeal invagination. In cad-deficient embryos, fog expression in the prospective ventral furrow is normal, but is significantly reduced in the posterior cap. Thus, cad is required for the normal level of expression of fog in the prospective amnioproctodeal plate; decreased fog expression in cad-deficient embryos is likely responsible for the failure of the hindgut primordium to be internalized during gastrulation. Since fkh or wg mutant embryos do not display detectable defects in gastrulation, fog is the only gene presently known to mediate the effects of cad on gastrulation. In fog mutant embryos, none of the posterior gut primordia invaginate, while in cad-deficient embryos the posterior midgut and Malpighian tubule primordium do invaginate; thus, consistent with the in situ hybridization results, a low level of fog activity is present at the posterior of embryos lacking cad (Wu, 1998).

In addition to cad, three other genes (fkh, byn and wg,), which are required at the posterior of the Drosophila embryo for formation of the hindgut, are related to genes found throughout the metazoa, known as HNF-3 (alpha, beta, and gamma), Brachyury (also known as T) and Wnt, respectively. In many cases, these homologs are expressed in portions of the Îblastopore equivalentâ at the posterior of the embryo, that overlap with domains of expression of cad (Cdx). In C. elegans, a Wnt homolog is expressed, and required for proper posterior development, in the same posterior blastomere where the cad homolog pal-1 functions. In sea urchin, HNF-3 and Brachyury homologs are expressed in the vegetal plate just prior to gastrulation. In fish and frog, Caudal, Brachyury and Wnt (Wnt8 and Wnt11) are initially expressed around most or all of the blastopore lip while HNF-3 expression is dorsally localized. As gastrulation proceeds, the expression of these genes becomes more restricted and non-overlapping, with HNF-3 and Brachyury expression becoming localized to the notochord and Wnt8 expression retreating from the dorsal position and becoming exclusively ventral. Patterns of expression of HNF-3 and Brachyury consistent with this general description have been found in ascidians (phylum Urochordata), amphioxus (Cephalochordata within the phylum Chordata), chick and mouse. Required roles for some of these genes have been demonstrated by analysis of mutants: mouse HNF-3beta knockouts reveal requirements in the formation of the node, notochord and head process; fish no tail and mouse T mutants reveal a requirement for Brachyury in migration of mesoderm through the primitive streak and in formation of the notochord. There is thus a constellation of conserved genes -- cad (Cdx), fkh (HNF-3), wg (Wnt8 and Wnt11) and byn (Brachyury) -- whose overlapping expression patterns in the blastopore equivalent suggests function in a related process. The phenotypes of the available mutations in these genes suggest that the common function is to specify cell fate at the blastopore; in most cases, essential parts of this fate are internalization and forward migration, two of the cellular movements that occur during gastrulation (Wu, 1998 and references).

The striking conservation in expression (and likely in function) of cad suggests that the regulation of posterior terminal development in Drosophila by Caudal may represent a more ancient regulatory mechanism than the tor receptor and the two genes that it activates: tll and hkb. Of these three genes, a vertebrate homolog is known only for tll; the function of this vertebrate gene, Tlx, is related to that of Drosophila tll not in the posterior, but rather in the anterior, in the establishment of the brain. Thus the Torso receptor pathway and its activation of tll and hkb has probably been superimposed relatively recently (in evolutionary terms) upon a more ancient, Caudal-regulated network of gene activity controlling gastrulation and gut formation. The fact that the same four genes are expressed at both the blastopore equivalent of chordates and at the amnioproctodeal invagination of Drosophila suggests that these two highly dynamic domains are homologous. Given the regulatory hierarchy that is present in Drosophila, it is proposed that in embryos of the proximate ancestor to arthropods and chordates, the posterior was defined by a posterior-to-anterior gradient of Cad activity. Cad is thought to have then activated expression of downstream network of genes in control of invagination (gastrulation) and gut specification. Cad expression in the archenteron probably continued during evolution and played an essential developmental role, since this structure differentiated into the gut. Going beyond the bilaterian ancestor to chordates and arthropods, it is worth considering that this nexus of gene expression may have evolved even more basally in the metazoa. The foregoing, by homologizing the insect amnioproctodeal invagination with the echinoderm and vertebrate blastopore, does not fit with the classical definition of protostomes and deuterostomes. This view categorizes arthropods as protostomes, in which the mouth is derived from the primary invagination of gastrulation; chordates are categorized as deuterostomes, where the mouth arises from a secondary invagination. More recently, comparisons of gastrulation patterns in many different species, as well as construction of molecularly based cladograms, have called into question the utility of these classically defined groups. While there continues to be uncertainty in understanding of 'protostome' and 'deuterostome' phyla, the significant conclusion of the information presented in this study is that there may be a homology between the blastopore of vertebrates and the amnioproctodeal (posterior) invagination of insects (Wu, 1998 and references).


Epstein, M., et al. (1997). Patterning of the embryo along the anterior-posterior axis: the role of the caudal genes. Development 124(19): 3805-3814. PubMed Citation: 9367436

Wu, L. H. and Lengyel, J. A. (1998). Role of caudal in hindgut specification and gastrulation suggests homology between Drosophila amnioproctodeal invagination and vertebrate blastopore. Development 125: 2433-2442. PubMed Citation: 9609826

date revised: 15 August 98

Developmental Pathways conserved in Evolution

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