Mutual repression enhances the steepness and precision of gene expression boundaries

PLoS Comput Biol. 2012;8(8):e1002654. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002654. Epub 2012 Aug 30.


Embryonic development is driven by spatial patterns of gene expression that determine the fate of each cell in the embryo. While gene expression is often highly erratic, embryonic development is usually exceedingly precise. In particular, gene expression boundaries are robust not only against intra-embryonic fluctuations such as noise in gene expression and protein diffusion, but also against embryo-to-embryo variations in the morphogen gradients, which provide positional information to the differentiating cells. How development is robust against intra- and inter-embryonic variations is not understood. A common motif in the gene regulation networks that control embryonic development is mutual repression between pairs of genes. To assess the role of mutual repression in the robust formation of gene expression patterns, we have performed large-scale stochastic simulations of a minimal model of two mutually repressing gap genes in Drosophila, hunchback (hb) and knirps (kni). Our model includes not only mutual repression between hb and kni, but also the stochastic and cooperative activation of hb by the anterior morphogen Bicoid (Bcd) and of kni by the posterior morphogen Caudal (Cad), as well as the diffusion of Hb and Kni between neighboring nuclei. Our analysis reveals that mutual repression can markedly increase the steepness and precision of the gap gene expression boundaries. In contrast to other mechanisms such as spatial averaging and cooperative gene activation, mutual repression thus allows for gene-expression boundaries that are both steep and precise. Moreover, mutual repression dramatically enhances their robustness against embryo-to-embryo variations in the morphogen levels. Finally, our simulations reveal that diffusion of the gap proteins plays a critical role not only in reducing the width of the gap gene expression boundaries via the mechanism of spatial averaging, but also in repairing patterning errors that could arise because of the bistability induced by mutual repression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drosophila / embryology
  • Drosophila / genetics
  • Embryonic Development*
  • Gene Expression*
  • Regression Analysis*
  • Stochastic Processes

Grants and funding

This work is part of the research program of the “Stichting voor Fundamenteel Onderzoek der Materie (FOM)”, which is financially supported by the “Nederlandse organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO)”. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.