Developmental transitions include molting in some invertebrates and the metamorphosis of insects and amphibians. While the study of Caenorhabditis elegans larval transitions was crucial to determine the genetic control of these transitions, Drosophila melanogaster and Xenopus laevis have been classic models to study the role of hormones in metamorphosis. Here we review how heterochronic genes (lin-4, let-7, lin-28, lin-41), hormones (dafachronic acid, ecdysone, thyroid hormone) and the environment regulate developmental transitions. Recent evidence suggests that some heterochronic genes also regulate transitions in higher organisms that they are controlled by hormones involved in metamorphosis. We also discuss evidence demonstrating that heterochronic genes and hormones regulate the proliferation and differentiation of embryonic and neural stem cells. We propose the hypothesis that developmental transitions are regulated by an evolutionary conserved mechanism in which heterochronic genes and hormones interact to control stem/progenitor cells proliferation, cell cycle exit, quiescence and differentiation and determine the proper timing of developmental transitions. Finally, we discuss the relevance of these studies to understand post-embryonic development, puberty and regeneration in humans.
Keywords: C. elegans; Developmental transitions; Drosophila; Heterochronic genes; Lin-28; Metamorphosis; Stem and progenitor cells; Thyroid hormone; Xenopus.
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