The gastrulation of Nematostella vectensis, the starlet sea anemone, is morphologically simple yet involves many conserved cell behaviors such as apical constriction, invagination, bottle cell formation, cell migration and zippering found during gastrulation in a wide range of more morphologically complex animals. In this article we study Nematostella gastrulation using a combination of morphometrics and computational modeling. Through this analysis we frame gastrulation as a non-trivial problem, in which two distinct cell domains must change shape to match each other geometrically, while maintaining the integrity of the embryo. Using a detailed cell-based model capable of representing arbitrary cell-shapes such as bottle cells, as well as filopodia, localized adhesion and constriction, we are able to simulate gastrulation and associate emergent macroscopic changes in embryo shape to individual cell behaviors. We have developed a number of testable hypotheses based on the model. First, we hypothesize that the blastomeres need to be stiffer at their apical ends, relative to the rest of the cell perimeter, in order to be able to hold their wedge shape and the dimensions of the blastula, regardless of whether the blastula is sealed or leaky. We also postulate that bottle cells are a consequence of cell strain and low cell-cell adhesion, and can be produced within an epithelium even without apical constriction. Finally, we postulate that apical constriction, filopodia and de-epithelialization are necessary and sufficient for gastrulation based on parameter variation studies.
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