A bHLH Code for Sexually Dimorphic Form and Function of the C. Elegans Somatic Gonad

Curr Biol. 2017 Jun 19;27(12):1853-1860.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.05.059. Epub 2017 Jun 8.


How sexually dimorphic gonads are generated is a fundamental question at the interface of developmental and evolutionary biology [1-3]. In C. elegans, sexual dimorphism in gonad form and function largely originates in different apportionment of roles to three regulatory cells of the somatic gonad primordium in young larvae. Their essential roles include leading gonad arm outgrowth, serving as the germline niche, connecting to epithelial openings, and organizing reproductive organ development. The development and function of the regulatory cells in both sexes requires the basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factor HLH-2, the sole ortholog of the E proteins mammalian E2A and Drosophila Daughterless [4-8], yet how they adopt different fates to execute their different roles has been unknown. Here, we show that each regulatory cell expresses a distinct complement of bHLH-encoding genes-and therefore distinct HLH-2:bHLH dimers-and formulate a "bHLH code" hypothesis for regulatory cell identity. We support this hypothesis by showing that the bHLH gene complement is both necessary and sufficient to confer particular regulatory cell fates. Strikingly, prospective regulatory cells can be directly reprogrammed into other regulatory cell types simply by loss or ectopic expression of bHLH genes, and male-to-female and female-to-male transformations indicate that the code is instructive for sexual dimorphism. The bHLH code appears to be embedded in a bow-tie regulatory architecture [9, 10], wherein sexual, positional, temporal, and lineage inputs connect through bHLH genes to diverse outputs for terminal features and provides a plausible mechanism for the evolutionary plasticity of gonad form seen in nematodes [11-15].

Keywords: anchor cell; bHLH; cell-fate reprogramming; cell-fate specification; distal tip cell; gonad; linker cell; sexual dimorphism.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / genetics*
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / growth & development
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Gonads / growth & development
  • Larva / genetics
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics


  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • HLH-2 protein, C elegans