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J Cell Sci Suppl. 1992;16:39-51.

Transcriptional control by Drosophila gap genes.

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  • 1Abt. Molekulare Entwicklungsbiologie, Max-Planck-Institut für biophysikalische Chemie, Göttingen, Germany.


The segmented body pattern along the longitudinal axis of the Drosophila embryo is established by a cascade of specific transcription factor activities. This cascade is initiated by maternal gene products that are localized at the polar regions of the egg. The initial long-range positional information of the maternal factors, which are transcription factors (or are factors which activate or localize transcription factors), is transferred through the activity of the zygotic segmentation genes. The gap genes act at the top of this regulatory hierarchy. Expression of the gap genes occurs in discrete domains along the longitudinal axis of the preblastoderm and defines specific, overlapping sets of segment primordia. Their protein products, which are DNA-binding transcription factors mostly of the zinc finger type, form broad and overlapping concentration gradients which are controlled by maternal factors and by mutual interactions between the gap genes themselves. Once established, these overlapping gap protein gradients provide spatial cues which generate the repeated pattern of the subordinate pair-rule gene expression, thereby blue-printing the pattern of segmental units in the blastoderm embryo. Our results show different strategies by which maternal gene products, in combination with various gap gene proteins, provide position-dependent sets of transcriptional activator/repressor systems which regulate the spatial pattern of specific gap gene expression. Region-specific combinations of different transcription factors that derive from localized gap gene expression eventually generate the periodic pattern of pair-rule gene expression by the direct interaction with individual cis-acting "stripe elements" of particular pair-rule gene promoters. Thus, the developmental fate of blastoderm cells is programmed according to their position within the anterior-posterior axis of the embryo: maternal transcription factors regulate the region-specific expression of first zygotic transcription factors which, by their specific and unique combinations, control subordinate zygotic transcription factors, thereby subdividing the embryo into increasingly smaller units later seen in the larva.

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