Citation: Erkenbrack, E. M., Davidson, E. H., Peter, I.S. (2018). Conserved regulatory state expression controlled by divergent developmental gene regulatory networks in echinoids. Development. In press.
Animals consist of a wide variety of cells that serve different functions depending on their location in the body. Cells with similar functions, or cell types, in different animal species are related both by an evolutionary line of descentÐsimilar to the relatedness of species themselvesÐand by a developmental line of descent in the embryo. Networks of interacting genes, or gene regulatory networks, control gene expression in the cell, thereby specifying cell type identity. Understanding how new cell types arise by changing gene regulatory networks is critical both to comprehending fundamental aspects of human biology and to manipulating cell types in the laboratory. We approached this question by studying endometrial stromal fibroblast (ESF) cells from the uterus of humans and opossums, two distantly related mammals. We showed that the distantly related cell type in opossum expresses a similar set of regulatory genes as the human cell, but in response to pregnancy-related signals, the opossum cells induce a stress response. In the human cells, these signals induce differentiation into decidual cells, a specialized cell type present in humans and closely related mammals. These results suggest that a gene regulatory network that modulated an ancestral, pregnancy-related stress response was hijacked and repurposed to function in differentiation and specification of the decidual cell type.
Mechanistic understanding of evolutionary divergence in animal body plans devolves from analysis of those developmental processes that, in forms descendant from a common ancestor, are responsible for their morphological differences. The last common ancestor of the two extant subclasses of sea urchins, i.e., euechinoids and cidaroids, existed well before the Permian/Triassic extinction (252 mya). Subsequent evolutionary divergence of these clades offers in principle a rare opportunity to solve the developmental regulatory events underlying a defined evolutionary divergence process.
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