Stochastic mechanisms diversify cell fate in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans [1-4]. In the anchor cell/ventral uterine precursor cell (AC/VU) fate decision during C. elegans gonadogenesis, two "α cells," each with equal potential to be an AC or a VU, interact via LIN-12/Notch and its ligand LAG-2/DSL [5, 6]. This LIN-12/Notch-mediated interaction engages feedback mechanisms that amplify a stochastic initial difference between the two α cells, ensuring that the cell with higher lin-12 activity becomes the VU while the other becomes the AC [7-9]. The initial difference between the α cells was originally envisaged as a random imbalance from "noise" in lin-12 expression/activity . However, subsequent evidence that the relative birth order of the α cells biases their fates suggested other factors may be operating . Here, we investigate the nature of the initial difference using high-throughput lineage analysis ; GFP-tagged endogenous LIN-12, LAG-2, and HLH-2, a conserved transcription factor that orchestrates AC/VU development [7, 11]; and tissue-specific hlh-2 null alleles. We identify two stochastic elements: relative birth order, which largely originates at the beginning of the somatic gonad lineage three generations earlier, and onset of HLH-2 expression, such that the α cell whose parent expressed HLH-2 first is biased toward the VU fate. We find that these elements are interrelated, because initiation of HLH-2 expression is linked to the birth of the parent cell. Finally, we provide a potential deterministic mechanism for the HLH-2 expression bias by showing that hlh-2 is required for LIN-12 expression in the α cells.
Keywords: C. elegans; E2A; HLH-2; LIN-12; Notch; cell fate; cell lineage; gonad; stochastic.
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