Background: The evolution of embryological development has long been characterized by deep conservation. In animal development, the phylotypic stage in mid-embryogenesis is more conserved than either early or late stages among species within the same phylum. Hypotheses to explain this hourglass pattern have focused on purifying the selection of gene regulation. Here, we propose an alternative-genes are regulated in different ways at different stages and have different intrinsic capacities to respond to perturbations on gene expression.
Results: To eliminate the influence of natural selection, we quantified the expression variability of isogenetic single embryo transcriptomes throughout fly Drosophila melanogaster embryogenesis. We found that the expression variability is lower at the phylotypic stage, supporting that the underlying regulatory architecture in this stage is more robust to stochastic variation on gene expression. We present evidence that the phylotypic stage is also robust to genetic variations on gene expression. Moreover, chromatin regulation appears to play a key role in the variation and evolution of gene expression.
Conclusions: We suggest that a phylum-level pattern of embryonic conservation can be explained by the intrinsic difference of gene regulatory mechanisms in different stages.
Keywords: Evo-devo; Expression variability; Hourglass.