A central challenge of developmental and evolutionary biology is to explain how anatomy is encoded in the genome. Anatomy emerges progressively during embryonic development, as a consequence of morphogenetic processes. The specialized properties of embryonic cells and tissues that drive morphogenesis, like other specialized properties of cells, arise as a consequence of differential gene expression. Recently, gene regulatory networks (GRNs) have proven to be powerful conceptual and experimental tools for analyzing the genetic control and evolution of developmental processes. A major current goal is to link these transcriptional networks directly to morphogenetic processes. This review highlights three experimental models (sea urchin skeletogenesis, ascidian notochord morphogenesis, and the formation of somatic muscles in Drosophila) that are currently being used to analyze the genetic control of anatomy by integrating information of several important kinds: (1) morphogenetic mechanisms at the molecular, cellular and tissue levels that are responsible for shaping a specific anatomical feature, (2) the underlying GRN circuitry deployed in the relevant cells, and (3) modifications to gene regulatory circuitry that have accompanied evolutionary changes in the anatomical feature.
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