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A gene expression atlas of a bicoid-depleted Drosophila embryo reveals early canalization of cell fate

Max V Staller, Charless C Fowlkes, Meghan D.J. Bragdon, Zeba B. Wunderlich, Angela DePace


In developing embryos, gene regulatory networks canalize cells towards discrete terminal fates. We studied the behavior of the anterior-posterior segmentation network in Drosophila melanogaster embryos depleted of a key maternal input, bicoid (bcd), by building a cellular- resolution gene expression atlas containing measurements of 12 core patterning genes over 6 time points in early development. With this atlas, we determine the precise perturbation each cell experiences, relative to wild type, and observe how these cells assume cell fates in the perturbed embryo. The first zygotic layer of the network, consisting of the gap and terminal genes, is highly robust to perturbation: all combinations of transcription factor expression found in bcd depleted embryos were also found in wild type embryos, suggesting that no new cell fates were created even at this very early stage. All of the gap gene expression patterns in the trunk expand by different amounts, a feature that we were unable to explain using two simple models of the effect of bcd depletion. In the second layer of the network, depletion of bcd led to an excess of cells expressing both even skipped and fushi tarazu early in the blastoderm stage, but by gastrulation this overlap resolved into mutually exclusive stripes. Thus, following depletion of bcd, individual cells rapidly canalize towards normal cell fates in both layers of this gene regulatory network. Our gene expression atlas provides a high resolution picture of a classic perturbation and will enable further modeling of canalization in this transcriptional network.