Robustness of the Dorsal morphogen gradient with respect to morphogen dosage
In multicellular organisms, the timing and placement of gene expression in a developing tissue assigns the fate of each cell in the embryo in order for a uniform field of cells to differentiate into a reproducible pattern of organs and tissues. This positional information is often achieved through the action of spatial gradients of morphogens. Spatial patterns of gene expression are paradoxically robust to variations in morphogen dosage, given that, by definition, gene expression must be sensitive to morphogen concentration. In this work we investigate the robustness of the Dorsal/NF-κB signaling module with respect to perturbations to the dosage of maternally-expressed dorsal mRNA. The Dorsal morphogen gradient patterns the dorsal-ventral axis of the early Drosophila embryo, and we found that an empirical description of the Dorsal gradient is highly sensitive to maternal dorsal dosage. In contrast, we found experimentally that gene expression patterns are highly robust. Although the components of this signaling module have been characterized in detail, how their function is integrated to produce robust gene expression patterns to variations in the dorsal maternal dosage is still unclear. Therefore, we analyzed a mechanistic model of the Dorsal signaling module and found that Cactus, a cytoplasmic inhibitor for Dorsal, must be present in the nucleus for the system to be robust. Furthermore, active Toll, the receptor that dissociates Cactus from Dorsal, must be saturated. Finally, the vast majority of robust descriptions of the system require facilitated diffusion of Dorsal by Cactus. Each of these three recently-discovered mechanisms of the Dorsal module are critical for robustness. These mechanisms synergistically contribute to changing the amplitude and shape of the active Dorsal gradient, which is required for robust gene expression. Our work highlights the need for quantitative understanding of biophysical mechanisms of morphogen gradients in order to understand emergent phenotypes, such as robustness.
National Cancer Institute, Award: R21-HD092830
National Science Foundation, Award: CBET-1254344
United States Department of Education, Award: P200A100004