Mechanistic Modeling and Experiments on Cell Fate Specification in the Sea Urchin Embryo

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During embryogenesis, a single zygote gives rise to a multicellular embryo with distinct spatial territories marked by differential gene expression. How is this patterning process organized? How robust is this function to perturbations? Experiments that examine normal and regulative development will provide direct evidence for reasoning out the answers to these fundamental questions. Recent advances in technology have led to experimental determinations of increasingly complex gene regulatory networks (GRNs) underlying embryonic development. These GRNs offer a window into systems level properties of the developmental process, but at the same time present the challenge of characterizing their behavior. A suitable modeling framework for developmental systems is needed to help gain insights into embryonic development. Such models should contain enough detail to capture features of interest to developmental biologists, while staying simple enough to be computationally tractable and amenable to conceptual analysis. Combining experiments with the complementary modeling framework, we can grasp a systems level understanding of the regulatory program not readily visible by focusing on individual genes or pathways.

This dissertation addresses both modeling and experimental challenges. First, we present the autonomous Boolean network modeling framework and show that it is a suitable approach for developmental regulatory systems. We show that important timing information associated with the regulatory interactions can be faithfully represented in autonomous Boolean models in which binary variables representing expression levels are updated in continuous time, and that such models can provide direct insight into features that are difficult to extract from ordinary differential equation (ODE) models. As an application, we model the experimentally well-studied network controlling fly body segmentation. The Boolean model successfully generates the patterns formed in normal and genetically perturbed fly embryos, permits the derivation of constraints on the time delay parameters, clarifies the logic associated with different ODE parameter sets, and provides a platform for studying connectivity and robustness in parameter space. By elucidating the role of regulatory time delays in pattern formation, the results suggest new types of experimental measurements in early embryonic development. We then use this framework to model the much more complicated sea urchin endomesoderm specification system and describe our recent progress on this long term effort.

Second, we present experimental results on developmental plasticity of the sea urchin embryo. The sea urchin embryo has the remarkable ability to replace surgically removed tissues by reprogramming the presumptive fate of remaining tissues, a process known as transfating, which in turn is a form of regulative development. We show that regulative development requires cellular competence, and that competence is lost early on but can be regained after further differentiation. We demonstrate that regulative replacement of missing tissues can induce distal germ layers to participate in reprogramming, leading to a complete re-patterning in the remainder of the embryo. To understand the molecular mechanism of cell fate reprogramming, we examined micromere depletion induced non-skeletogenic mesoderm (NSM) transfating. We found that the skeletogenic program was greatly temporally compressed in this case, and that akin to another NSM transfating case, the transfating cells went through a hybrid regulatory state where NSM and skeletogenic marker genes were co-expressed.





Cheng, Xianrui (2012). Mechanistic Modeling and Experiments on Cell Fate Specification in the Sea Urchin Embryo. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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