Multipotent Caenorhabditis elegans vulval precursor cells (VPCs) choose among three fates (1 degrees, 2 degrees, and 3 degrees ) in response to two intercellular signals: the EGF family growth factor LIN-3 induces 1 degrees fates at high levels and 2 degrees fates at low levels; and a signal via the receptor LIN-12 induces 2 degrees fates. If the level of LIN-3 signal is reduced by a lin-3 hypomorphic mutation, the daughters of the VPC closest to the anchor cell (AC), P6.p, are induced by the AC. By expressing LIN-3 as a function of time in LIN-3-deficient animals, we find that both VPCs and the daughters of VPCs are competent to respond to LIN-3, and VPC daughters lose competence after fusing with the hypodermis. We also demonstrate that the daughters of VPCs specified to be 2 degrees can respond to LIN-3, indicating that 2 degrees VPCs are not irreversibly committed. We propose that maintenance of VPC competence after the first cell cycle and the prioritization of the 1 degrees fate help ensure that P6.p will become 1 degrees. This mechanism of competence regulation might have been maintained from ancestral nematode species that used induction both before and after VPC division and serves to maximize the probability that a functional vulva is formed.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.