Take a look at a fly and it won't be long until you realize that even such a relatively simple creature is quite complex. This issue of complexity is a talking point for creationist rhetoric; "How can such complex structures just come together to create a fully formed individual?" they muse, "It must be the work of a divine creator!" Unfortunately for them, the process of development is well known and thoroughly understood. In a series of posts, I'll attempt to dispel this myth, and show just how a complex life form can arise from a single simple cell by entirely natural means. In this first part, I will introduce the concept of maternal effect genes, and one of the most important such gene, bicoid.
The development from a single egg to a full adult fly is a long one, but the process begins long before fertilization ever occurs. Consider, for a moment, the process of fertilization in humans. In humans, the egg cell is monstrous in size compared to the relatively diminutive sperm cell. There is much more cytoplasm in an egg than in sperm, and that cytoplasm is full of mRNA, mitochondria and other cytoplasmic factors. These are ultimately donated to the embryo upon fertilization: the fertilized embryo contains nuclear genetic information from both parents, but contains cytoplasmic factors from the mother alone.
Drosophila are no different. The unfertilized egg is not just a storage container for nuclear DNA, but it contains mitochondria and mRNA which will ultimately become part of the embryo after fertilization. Many of those mRNA transcripts belong to a class of genes that is very important to the development of the body plan: maternal effect genes.
Maternal effect genes get their name from the fact that they are expressed in the mother, and not in the embryo. During oogenesis, the tissues in the ovary express these genes, and the transcripts are packaged into the embryo. This is in contrast to zygotic genes, which are expressed in the nuclei of the embryo itself. One thing that makes maternal effect genes so interesting is that individual females that are mutant in such genes are phenotypically normal: the phenotype shows up in the progeny instead1. There are about 50 maternal effect genes that play a role in the development of the Drosophila body plan, and they set up the basic framework for the zygotic genes that come later (which I will describe in a later part). Perhaps the biggest role they play, though, is in setting up the body plan axes.
The Drosophila embryo has two axes: the anterior-posterior axis, and the dorsal-ventral axis (see Figure 1). If the the adult body plan is to be laid out in the developing embryo, it is important to make sure the embryo knows which side is which (you don't want the head to end up on the wrong end, for instance), and this is the primary goal for many maternal effect genes. The first of such genes that comes into play is called bicoid, and it works to determine the anterior-posterior axis of the egg. It does this through morphogenic gradients, a concept that you'll see used extensively throughout development.
Early on in the investigation of body plan development, it was noted that those mothers who are bicoid mutants give rise to progeny without properly differentiated anterior ends (they lack a head or thorax). This fact was interesting itself, but a series of experiments made the fact all the more striking. If you take an unfertilized Drosophila egg and poke the anterior end with a needle, allowing some of the cytoplasm to leak out, they end up developing into embryos that resemble those from bicoid mutants. Furthermore, if you were to transfer cytoplasm from the anterior end of a wild-type egg to the anterior end of a bicoid mutant egg, the embryos would develop normally2. It was also found that if the cytoplasm from the anterior end of a wild-type egg were transferred to the middle of a bicoid mutant egg, the embryos would develop a head right in the middle. This immediately suggested that there was some cytoplasmic factor in the anterior end of the egg that was lacking in bicoid mutant eggs, and this factor was responsible for establishing which end of the embryo became the anterior end.
If you were to look at the distribution of bicoid mRNA in the unfertilized egg, you would see just that (Figure 2). Before fertilization, bicoid mRNA is concentrated in anterior end. It remains untranslated until fertilization occurs. Upon fertilization, translation begins, and Bicoid protein diffuses through the embryo. Bicoid, then, forms a gradient, with high concentrations at the anterior end and low concentrations at the posterior end. Regions with a high concentration of Bicoid protein develop anterior structures, and the regions with a low concentration of Bicoid protein develop into posterior structures. The precise function of Bicoid will be explained in a later post, but for the moment, it is sufficient to know that bicoid activates particular zygotic genes in a concentration-dependant manner. Different zygotic genes have different threshold levels for activation, so the concentration of Bicoid across the embryo will determine which zygotic genes get activated, and in turn, determines what each region of the embryo develops into. This is the key principal behind a morphogenic gradient.
But bicoid isn't the only maternal effect gene that plays a role in setting up the anterior-posterior axis. In the next part to this series, I will discuss three more important maternal effect genes: nanos, caudal, and hunchback.
1. If this seems confusing, remember that the genes are expressed in the mother, but the transcripts, and ultimately, the gene products, are packaged in the egg. If a maternal effect gene is mutated, the mother will be fine, but her progeny will not, because it is the eggs that are receiving the defective gene products.
2. This type of experiment is called a "rescue experiment", because it allows one to "rescue" the mutant embryos and allow them to develop normally.