All organisms have to maintain great phenotypic stability (robustness) in the face of numerous changes in their internal and external environment. However, despite its universal significance, it is far from clear how development has evolved to ensure a stable and reproducible phenotype when development is perturbed. To gain a better understanding of the mechanisms providing robustness, we will examine the developmental mechanisms underlying the expression of an invariant and reproducible phenotype.
As a study system, we will focus on the well-characterised process of vulval cell fate specification in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This cell patterning process is controlled by a network of tightly regulated and partially redundant signalling pathways. T he functional significance of these mechanisms is not fully understood, yet their properties, such as redundancy, may act to maintain a correct vulva phenotype when development is perturbed. We will test this idea by studying vulva formation in different environmental conditions and in genetically distinct strains of C elegans.
We will test whether pathway activation is differentially regulated in a context-dependent fashion, and examine how such a differential regulation corresponds to changes in the precision of the vulval patterning process. If different conditions alter the use of developmental mechanisms while maintaining precision of the vulva pattern, this would indicate that development exhibits flexibility, which serves to maintain phenotypic stability. This project will examine the effects of environmental and genetic variation on a complex developmental process.
Our results will shed light on the interplay between developmental flexibility and phenotypic robustness, and how this relationship has evolved. Understanding how environmental and genetic variation modulates development is essential to understand the evolution and functional significance of its underlying genetic architecture.
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