Background: When resources are scant, C. elegans larvae arrest as long-lived dauers under the control of insulin/IGF- and TGFbeta-related signaling pathways. However, critical questions remain regarding the regulation of this developmental event. How do three dozen insulin-like proteins regulate one tyrosine kinase receptor to control complex events in dauer, metabolism and aging? How are signals from the TGFbeta and insulin/IGF pathways integrated? What gene expression programs do these pathways regulate, and how do they control complex downstream events?
Results: We have identified genes that show different levels of expression in a comparison of wild-type L2 or L3 larvae (non-dauer) to TGFbeta mutants at similar developmental stages undergoing dauer formation. Many insulin/IGF pathway and other known dauer regulatory genes have changes in expression that suggest strong positive feedback by the TGFbeta pathway. In addition, many insulin-like ligand and novel genes with similarity to the extracellular domain of insulin/IGF receptors have altered expression. We have identified a large group of regulated genes with putative binding sites for the FOXO transcription factor, DAF-16. Genes with DAF-16 sites upstream of the transcription start site tend to be upregulated, whereas genes with DAF-16 sites downstream of the coding region tend to be downregulated. Finally, we also see strong regulation of many novel hedgehog- and patched-related genes, hormone biosynthetic genes, cell cycle genes, and other regulatory genes.
Conclusions: The feedback regulation of insulin/IGF pathway and other dauer genes that we observe would be predicted to amplify signals from the TGFbeta pathway; this amplification may serve to ensure a decisive choice between "dauer" and "non-dauer", even if environmental cues are ambiguous. Up and down regulation of insulin-like ligands and novel genes with similarity to the extracellular domain of insulin/IGF receptors suggests opposing roles for several members of these large gene families. Unlike in adults, most genes with putative DAF-16 binding sites are upregulated during dauer entry, suggesting that DAF-16 has different activity in dauer versus adult metabolism and aging. However, our observation that the position of putative DAF-16 binding sites is correlated with the direction of regulation suggests a novel method of achieving gene-specific regulation from a single pathway. We see evidence of TGFbeta-mediated regulation of several other classes of regulatory genes, and we discuss possible functions of these genes in dauer formation.