Quantification reveals early dynamics in Drosophila maternal gradients

PLoS One. 2021 Aug 19;16(8):e0244701. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0244701. eCollection 2021.


The Bicoid (Bcd) protein is a primary determinant of early anterior-posterior (AP) axis specification in Drosophila embryogenesis. This morphogen is spatially distributed in an anterior-high gradient, and affects particular AP cell fates in a concentration-dependent manner. The early distribution and dynamics of the bicoid (bcd) mRNA, the source for the Bcd protein gradient, is not well understood, leaving a number of open questions for how Bcd positional information develops and is regulated. Confocal microscope images of whole early embryos, stained for bcd mRNA or the Staufen (Stau) protein involved in its transport, were processed to extract quantitative AP intensity profiles at two depths (apical-under the embryo surface but above the nuclear layer; and basal-below the nuclei). Each profile was quantified by a two- (or three-) exponential equation. The parameters of these equations were used to analyze the early developmental dynamics of bcd. Analysis of 1D profiles was compared with 2D intensity surfaces from the same images. This approach reveals strong early changes in bcd and Stau, which appear to be coordinated. We can unambiguously discriminate three stages in early development using the exponential parameters: pre-blastoderm (1-9 cleavage cycle, cc), syncytial blastoderm (10-13 cc) and cellularization (from 14A cc). Key features which differ in this period are how fast the first exponential (anterior component) of the apical profile drops with distance and whether it is higher or lower than the basal first exponential. We can further discriminate early and late embryos within the pre-blastoderm stage, depending on how quickly the anterior exponential drops. This relates to the posterior-wards spread of bcd in the first hour of development. Both bcd and Stau show several redistributions in the head cytoplasm, quite probably related to nuclear activity: first shifting inwards towards the core plasm, forming either protrusions (early pre-blastoderm) or round aggregations (early nuclear cleavage cycles, cc, 13 and 14), then moving to the embryo surface and spreading posteriorly. These movements are seen both with the 2D surface study and the 1D profile analysis. The continued spreading of bcd can be tracked from the time of nuclear layer formation (later pre-blastoderm) to the later syncytial blastoderm stages by the progressive loss of steepness of the apical anterior exponential (for both bcd and Stau). Finally, at the beginning of cc14 (cellularization stage) we see a distinctive flip from the basal anterior gradient being higher to the apical gradient being higher (for both bcd and Stau). Quantitative analysis reveals substantial (and correlated) bcd and Stau redistributions during early development, supporting that the distribution and dynamics of bcd mRNA are key factors in the formation and maintenance of the Bcd protein morphogenetic gradient. This analysis reveals the complex and dynamic nature of bcd redistribution, particularly in the head cytoplasm. These resemble observations in oogenesis; their role and significance have yet to be clarified. The observed co-localization during redistribution of bcd and Stau may indicate the involvement of active transport.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Patterning / genetics
  • Cell Nucleus / genetics
  • Cytoplasm / genetics
  • Drosophila / genetics*
  • Drosophila Proteins / genetics
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / physiology
  • Embryonic Development / genetics
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics
  • Morphogenesis / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA-Binding Proteins / genetics


  • Drosophila Proteins
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • RNA-Binding Proteins
  • stau protein, Drosophila

Grants and funding

This work was supported by A.V.S.: the Russian Foundation for Basic Research grant 20-04-01015 (https://www.rfbr.ru/); N.G. and A.S.: the Russian Foundation for Basic Research grant 20-01-00067; S.B.: the Swedish Research Council 2010 (https://www.vr.se/), and the Ekhaga, Nilsson-Ehle and Erik Philip-Sörensen Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.