Background: A complex network of signaling pathways and transcription factors regulates vertebrate mesoderm development. Zebrafish mutants provide a powerful tool for examining the roles of individual genes in such a network. spadetail (spt) is a mutant with a lesion in tbx16, a T-box transcription factor involved in mesoderm development; the mutant phenotype includes disrupted primitive red blood cell formation as well as disrupted somitogenesis. Despite much recent progress, the downstream targets of tbx16 remain incompletely understood. The current study was carried out to test whether any of the five major signaling pathways are regulated by tbx16 during two specific stages of mesoderm development: primitive red blood cell formation in the intermediate mesoderm and somite formation in the tail paraxial mesoderm. This test was performed using Gene Set Enrichment Analysis, which identifies coordinated changes in expression among a priori sets of genes associated with biological features or processes.
Results: Our Gene Set Enrichment Analysis results identify Wnt and retinoic acid signaling as likely downstream targets of tbx16 in the developing zebrafish intermediate mesoderm, the site of primitive red blood cell formation. In addition, such results identify retinoic acid signaling as a downstream target of tbx16 in the developing zebrafish posterior somites. Finally, using candidate gene identification and in situ hybridization, we provide expression domain information for 25 additional genes downstream of tbx16 that are outside of both pathways; 23 were previously unknown downstream targets of tbx16, and seven had previously uncharacterized expression in zebrafish.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that (1) tbx16 regulates Wnt signaling in the developing zebrafish intermediate mesoderm, the site of primitive red blood cell formation, and (2) tbx16 regulates retinoic acid signaling at two distinct embryonic locations and developmental stages, which may imply ongoing spatio-temporal regulation throughout mesoderm development.