Predictive Modeling of Signaling Crosstalk during C. elegans Vulval Development

Jasmin Fisher, Nir Piterman, Alex Hajnal, and Thomas A. Henzinger

Caenorhabditis elegans vulval development provides an important paradigm for studying the process of cell fate determination and pattern formation during animal development. Although many genes controlling vulval cell fate specification have been identified, how they orchestrate to generate a robust and invariant pattern of cell fates is not yet completely understood. Here, we have developed a dynamic computational model incorporating the current mechanistic understanding of gene interactions during this patterning process. A key feature of our model is the inclusion of multiple modes of crosstalk between the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and LIN-12/Notch signaling pathways, which together determine the fates of the six vulval precursor cells (VPCs). Computational analysis, using the model-checking technique, provides new biological insights into the regulatory network governing VPC fate specification and predicts novel negative feedback loops. In addition, our analysis shows that most mutations affecting vulval development lead to stable fate patterns in spite of variations in synchronicity between VPCs. Computational searches for the basis of this robustness show that a sequential activation of the EGFR-mediated inductive signaling and LIN-12 Notch-mediated lateral signaling pathways is key to achieve a stable cell fate pattern. We demonstrate experimentally a time-delay between the activation of the inductive and lateral signaling pathways in wild-type animals and the loss of sequential signaling in mutants showing unstable fate patterns; thus validating two key predictions provided by our modeling work. The insights gained by our modeling study further substantiate the usefulness of executing and analyzing mechanistic models to investigate complex biological behaviors.

PLoS Computational Biology 3(5):e92, 2007.

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