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Function-based expression screen for genes involved in gastrulation of the basal metazoan Nematostella vectensis


The questions of how genetic programs regulate the formation of a complex multi-cellular body and how these genetic programs evolved are key topics of the modern developmental biology. Cnidarians are of especial interest for the Evolution and Development field, as they occupy a unique evolutionary position of a sister group to all bilaterian Eumetazoa. There are two main features, which make Cnidaria distinct from all the other multi-cellular animals: the lack of typical bilateral symmetry and the lack of mesoderm, the third germ layer.

The information on what molecular mechanisms are critical for the rise of these features in Bilateria still remains scarce. The very conserved developmental process, during which the germ layers arise, is called gastrulation. The best cnidarian model for studying gene activity during embryogenesis is the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. It was shown previously that conserved transcription factors such as brachyury, forkhead, snail, twist and others are expressed in spatially restricted domains during gastrulation (Scholz and Technau, 2003; Martindale et al., 2004; et al., 2004). Expression domains suggest conservation of the function of these genes in the course of evolution. However, to my knowledge, no unbiased functional screen has been carried out in a cnidarian. I, therefore, propose a project focused on the unbiased search for genes, which are functionally involved in the process of gastrulation in N. vectensis, with the use of expression cloning strategy.

In the screen proposed, pools of mRNAs will be injected into the early embryos of N. vectensis. Sib selection procedure on active pools will allow finding individual genes functionally involved in the process of gastrulation. The project will shed light on the genetic basis of gastrulation in an evolutionary old metazoan and bring us closer to understanding the genetic features of the common ancestor of all multi-cellular animals.

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