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Drosophila embryogenesis

Drosophila has long been a favorite model system for geneticists and developmental biologists studying embryogenesis. The small size, short generation time, and large brood size makes it ideal for genetic studies. Transparent embryos facilitate developmental studies. Drosophila melanogaster was introduced into the field of genetic experiments by Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1909.

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Life cycle

Drosophila are species of molting insects, meaning that they have two distinct stages of their life cycle with radically different body plans: larva and adults. During embryogenesis, the larva develops and then hatches from the egg. Cells that will produce adult structures are put aside in imaginal discs. During the pupal stage, the larval body breaks down as the imaginal disks grow and produce the adult body. This process is called complete metamorphosis.

The mother fly produces oocytes that already have anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral axes defined by maternal activities.

Embryogenesis in Drosophila is unique among model organisms in that cleavage occurs in a syncytium. About 5,000 nuclei accumulate in the unseparated cytoplasm of the oocyte before they migrate to the surface and are encompassed by plasma membranes to form cells surrounding the yolk sac. Early on, the germ line segregates from the somatic cells through the formation of pole cells at the posterior end of the embryo.

Like other metazoa, gastrulation leads to the formation of three germ layers; the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm. The mesoderm invaginates from the ventral furrow, as do the ectoderm that will give rise to the midgut. The pole cells are internalized by a different route.

Germ band elongation involves many rearrangements of cells, and the appearance of distinct differences in the cells of the three germ bands and various regions of the embryo. The posterior region (including the hindgut) expands and extends towards the anterior pole along the dorsal side of the embryo. The earliest signs of segmentation appear during this phase with the formation of parasegmental furrows. This is also when the tracheal pits form, the first signs of structures for breathing.

Germ band retraction returns the hindgut to the dorsal side of the posterior pole and coincides with overt segmentation. The remaining stages involve the internalization of the nervous system (ectoderm) and the formation of internal organs (mainly mesoderm).

Anterior-posterior axis patterning in Drosophila

One of the best understood examples of pattern formation is the patterning along the future head to tail (antero-posterior) axis of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. The development of Drosophila is particularly well studied, and it is representative of a major class of animals, the insects or insecta. Other multicellular organisms sometimes use similar mechanisms for axis formation, although the relative importance of signal transfer between the earliest cells of many developing organisms is greater than in the example described here.

Maternal effect genes


The building-blocks of anterior-posterior axis patterning in Drosophila are laid out during egg formation (oogenesis), well before the egg is fertilized and deposited. The developing egg (oocyte) is polarized by differentially localized mRNA molecules.

The genes that code for these mRNAs, called maternal effect genes, encode for proteins that get translated upon fertilization to establish concentration gradients that span the egg. Bicoid and hunchback are the maternal effect genes that are most important for patterning of anterior parts (head and thorax) of the Drosophila embryo. Nanos and Caudal are maternal effect genes that are important in the formation of more posterior abdominal segments of the Drosophila embryo.

Cytoskeletal elements such as microtubules are polarized within the oocyte and can be used to allow the localization of mRNA molecules to specific parts of the cell. Maternally synthesized bicoid mRNAs attach to microtubules and are concentrated at the anterior ends of forming Drosophila eggs. Nanos mRNAs also attach to the egg cytoskeleton but they concentrate at the posterior ends of the eggs. Hunchback and caudal mRNAs lack special location control systems and are fairly evenly spread throughout the interior of egg cells.

When the mRNAs from the maternal effect genes are translated into proteins a Bicoid protein gradient forms at the anterior end of the egg. Nanos protein forms a gradient at the posterior end. The Bicoid protein blocks translation of caudal mRNA so Caudal protein is made only in the posterior part of the cell. Nanos protein binds to the hunchback mRNA and blocks its translation in the posterior end of Drosophila embryos.

The Bicoid, Hunchback, and Caudal proteins are transcription factors. Bicoid has a DNA-binding homeodomain that binds both DNA and the nanos mRNA. Bicoid binds a specific RNA sequence in the 3' untranslated region of caudal mRNA and blocks translation.

Hunchback protein levels in the early embryo are significantly augmented by new hunchback gene transcription and translation of the resulting zygotically produced mRNA. During early Drosophila embryogenesis there are nuclear divisions without cell division. The many nuclei that are produced distribute themselves around the periphery of the cell cytoplasm. Gene expression in these nuclei is regulated by the Bicoid, Hunchback, and Caudal proteins. For example, Bicoid acts as a transcriptional activator of hunchback gene transcription.


Gap genes

  The other important function of the gradients of Bicoid, Hunchback, and Caudal proteins is in the transcriptional regulation of other zygotically expressed proteins. Many of these are the protein products derived from members of the "gap" family of developmental control genes. Hunchback, krüppel, giant, tailless and knirps are all gap genes. Their expression patterns in the early embryo are determined by the maternal effect gene products and shown in the diagrams on the right side of this page. The gap genes are part of a larger family called the segmentation genes. These genes establish the segmented body plan of the embryo along the anterior-posterior axis. The segmentation genes specify 14 "parasegments" that are closely related to the final anatomical segments. The gap genes are the first layer of a hierarchical cascade of the segmentation control genes.

Proteins such as Bicoid can be described as morphogens that act within the syncytial blastoderm of the early Drosophila embryo. These intracellular morphogens enter the nuclei and act as transcription factors to control expression of the gap genes.

In the blastoderm stage of Drosophila morphogenesis four types of nuclear specification can be distinguished:

  • Anterior (head and thorax)
  • Posterior (abdomen)
  • Dorso-ventral
  • Terminal (special structures at the unsegmented ends of the embryo)

Additional segmentation genes

  Two additional classes of segmentation genes are expressed after the gap gene products. The pair-rule genes are expressed in striped patterns of seven bands perpendicular to the anterior-posterior axis (see Figure 6, even-skipped). These patterns of expression are established within the syncytial blastoderm. After these initial patterning events, cell membranes form around the nuclei of the syncytial blastoderm converting it to a cellular blastoderm.

  The expression patterns of the final class of segmentation genes, the segment polarity genes, are then fine-tuned by interactions between the cells of adjacent parasegments (see the example, engrailed, Figure 7). The Engrailed protein is a transcription factor (yellow in Figure 7) that is expressed in one row of cells at the edge of each parasegment. This expression pattern is initiated by the pair-rule genes (like even-skipped) that code for transcription factors that regulate the engrailed gene's transcription in the syncytial blastoderm.

Cells that make Engrailed can make the cell-to-cell signaling protein Hedgehog (green in Figure 7). Hedgehog is not free to move very far and activates a thin stripe of cells adjacent to the Engrailed-expressing cells. Only cells to one side of the Engrailed-expressing cells are competent to respond to Hedgehog because they express the receptor protein Patched (blue in Figure 7). Cells with activated Patch receptor make the Wingless protein (red in Figure 7). Wingless protein acts on the adjacent rows of cells by activating its cell surface receptor, Frizzled.

Wingless also acts on Engrailed-expressing cells to stabilize Engrailed expression after the cellular blastoderm forms. The reciprocal signaling by Hedgehog and Wingless stabilizes the boundary between each segment. The Wingless protein is called "wingless" because of the phenotype of some wingless mutants. Wingless also functioned during metamorphosis to coordinate wing formation.

The transcription factors that are coded for by segmentation genes regulate yet another family of developmental control genes, the homeotic selector genes. These genes exist in two ordered groups on Drosophila chromosome 3. The order of the genes on the chromosome reflects the order that they are expressed along the anterior-posterior axis of the developing embryo. The Antennapedia group of homeotic selector genes includes labial, antennapedia, sex combs reduced, deformed, and proboscipedia. Labial and Deformed proteins are expressed in head segments where they activate the genes that define head features. Sex-combs-reduced and Antennapedia specify the properties of thoracic segments. The bithorax group of homeotic selector genes control the specializations of the third thoracic segment and the abdominal segments.

In 1995, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded for studies concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development to Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Edward B. Lewis and Eric Wieschaus. Their researches on genetic screening for embryo patterning mutants revealed the role played in early embryologic development by Homeobox genes like bicoid. An example of a homeotic mutation is the so-called antennapedia mutation. In Drosophila, antennae and legs are created by the same basic "program", they only differ in a single transcription factor. If this transcription factor is damaged, the fly grows legs on its head instead of antennae. See images of this "antennapedia" mutant and others, at FlyBase.


Mutagenesis allow scientists to disrupt the function of genes in the fly. This is useful for studying embryogenosis.

It is fairly easy for an experienced scientist to make transgenic flies. This is a very useful tool and opens up many possibilities. It allows the study of the role of the gene in embryogenosis.

It is possible to tag a fly protein with a fluorescent protein such as green fluorescent protein (GFP). This means that you can watch the dynamics of the localisation of that protein. It is even possible to do so in living organisms.

The fly genome has been published and is an extremely useful resource. It can be used to look for the homolog of genes from other organisms, that are involved in embryogenosis. Once such a gene has been identified in fly it will make the study of its function possible and increase the understanding of the role of the gene product.

See also

External links

  • Fly Move:
  • The Interactive Fly:
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Drosophila_embryogenesis". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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