In C. elegans the 4-cell stage blastomere EMS is an endomesodermal precursor. Its anterior daughter, MS, makes primarily mesodermal cells, while its posterior daughter E generates the entire intestine. The gene regulatory network underlying specification of MS and E has been the subject of study for more than 15 years. A key component of the specification of the two cells is the involvement of the Wnt/beta-catenin asymmetry pathway, which through its nuclear effector POP-1, specifies MS and E as different from each other. Loss of pop-1 function results in the mis-specification of MS as an E-like cell, because POP-1 directly represses the end-1 and end-3 genes in MS, which would otherwise promote an endoderm fate. A long-standing question has been whether POP-1 plays a role in specifying MS fate beyond repression of endoderm fate. This question has been difficult to ask because the only chromosomal lesions that remove both end-1 and end-3 are large deletions removing hundreds of genes. Here, we report the construction of bona fide end-1 end-3 double mutants. In embryos lacking activity of end-1, end-3 and pop-1 together, we find that MS fate is partially restored, while E expresses early markers of MS fate and adopts characteristics of both MS and C. Our results suggest that POP-1 is not critical for MS specification beyond repression of endoderm specification, and reveal that Wnt-modified POP-1 and END-1/3 further reinforce E specification by repressing MS fate in E. By comparison, a previous work suggested that in the related nematode C. briggsae, Cb-POP-1 is not required to repress endoderm specification in MS, in direct contrast with Ce-POP-1, but is critical for repression of MS fate in E. The findings reported here shed new light on the flexibility of combinatorial control mechanisms in endomesoderm specification in Caenorhabditis.
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