The asymmetric cell division machinery in the spiral-cleaving egg and embryo of the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii

BMC Dev Biol. 2017 Dec 11;17(1):16. doi: 10.1186/s12861-017-0158-9.


Background: Over one third of all animal phyla utilize a mode of early embryogenesis called 'spiral cleavage' to divide the fertilized egg into embryonic cells with different cell fates. This mode is characterized by a series of invariant, stereotypic, asymmetric cell divisions (ACDs) that generates cells of different size and defined position within the early embryo. Astonishingly, very little is known about the underlying molecular machinery to orchestrate these ACDs in spiral-cleaving embryos. Here we identify, for the first time, cohorts of factors that may contribute to early embryonic ACDs in a spiralian embryo.

Results: To do so we analyzed stage-specific transcriptome data in eggs and early embryos of the spiralian annelid Platynereis dumerilii for the expression of over 50 candidate genes that are involved in (1) establishing cortical domains such as the partitioning defective (par) genes, (2) directing spindle orientation, (3) conveying polarity cues including crumbs and scribble, and (4) maintaining cell-cell adhesion between embryonic cells. In general, each of these cohorts of genes are co-expressed exhibiting high levels of transcripts in the oocyte and fertilized single-celled embryo, with progressively lower levels at later stages. Interestingly, a small number of key factors within each ACD module show different expression profiles with increased early zygotic expression suggesting distinct regulatory functions. In addition, our analysis discovered several highly co-expressed genes that have been associated with specialized neural cell-cell recognition functions in the nervous system. The high maternal contribution of these 'neural' adhesion complexes indicates novel general adhesion functions during early embryogenesis.

Conclusions: Spiralian embryos are champions of ACD generating embryonic cells of different size with astonishing accuracy. Our results suggest that the molecular machinery for ACD is already stored as maternal transcripts in the oocyte. Thus, the spiralian egg can be viewed as a totipotent yet highly specialized cell that evolved to execute fast and precise ACDs during spiral cleaving stages. Our survey identifies cohorts of factors in P. dumerilii that are candidates for these molecular mechanisms and their regulation, and sets the stage for a functional dissection of ACD in a spiral-cleaving embryo.

Keywords: Cell polarity; Cortical domains; Crumbs complex; Maternal contribution; Neural adhesion complexes; PAR genes; Planar cell polarity; Spindle orientation; Spiral cleavage; Transcriptional profiles.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Annelida / cytology*
  • Annelida / genetics*
  • Asymmetric Cell Division / genetics
  • Asymmetric Cell Division / physiology*
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology
  • Cell Polarity / genetics
  • Cell Polarity / physiology
  • Embryonic Development / genetics
  • Embryonic Development / physiology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Polychaeta / genetics*
  • Transcriptome / genetics