Developmental transitions in C. elegans larval stages

Curr Top Dev Biol. 2013;105:153-80. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-396968-2.00006-3.


Molecular mechanisms control the timing, sequence, and synchrony of developmental events in multicellular organisms. In Caenorhabditis elegans, these mechanisms are revealed through the analysis of mutants with "heterochronic" defects: cell division or differentiation patterns that occur in the correct lineage, but simply at the wrong time. Subsets of cells in these mutants thus express temporal identities normally restricted to a different life stage. A seminal finding arising from studies of the heterochronic genes was the discovery of miRNAs; these tiny miRNAs are now a defining feature of the pathway. A series of sequentially expressed miRNAs guide larval transitions through stage-specific repression of key effector molecules. The wild-type lineage patterns are executed as discrete modules programmed between temporal borders imposed by the molting cycles. How these successive events are synchronized with the oscillatory molting cycle is just beginning to come to light. Progression through larval stages can be specifically, yet reversibly, halted in response to environmental cues, including nutrient availability. Here too, heterochronic genes and miRNAs play key roles. Remarkably, developmental arrest can, in some cases, either mask or reveal timing defects associated with mutations. In this chapter, we provide an overview of how the C. elegans heterochronic gene pathway guides developmental transitions during continuous and interrupted larval development.

Keywords: Developmental timing; Diapause; Heterochronic; Molting; daf-12; lin-14; lin-28; lin-4; lin-42; miRNA.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / growth & development*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / physiology*
  • Larva / growth & development
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Molting / physiology*
  • Morphogenesis / genetics
  • Morphogenesis / physiology*
  • Time Factors


  • MicroRNAs