Background: Specification of the germ line is an essential event during the embryonic development of sexually reproducing animals, as germ line cells are uniquely capable of giving rise to the next generation. Animal germ cells arise through either inheritance of a specialized, maternally supplied cytoplasm called 'germ plasm' or though inductive signaling by somatic cells. Our understanding of germ cell determination is based largely on a small number of model organisms. To better understand the evolution of germ cell specification, we are investigating this process in the amphipod crustacean Parhyale hawaiensis. Experimental evidence from previous studies demonstrated that Parhyale germ cells are specified through inheritance of a maternally supplied cytoplasmic determinant; however, this determinant has not been identified.
Results: Here we show that the one-cell stage Parhyale embryo has a distinct cytoplasmic region that can be identified by morphology as well as the localization of germ line-associated RNAs. Removal of this cytoplasmic region results in a loss of embryonic germ cells, supporting the hypothesis that it is required for specification of the germ line. Surprisingly, we found that removal of this distinct cytoplasm also results in aberrant somatic cell behaviors, as embryos fail to gastrulate.
Conclusions: Parhyale hawaiensis embryos have a specialized cytoplasm that is required for specification of the germ line. Our data provide the first functional evidence of a putative germ plasm in a crustacean and provide the basis for comparative functional analysis of germ plasm formation within non-insect arthropods.