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Genetics. 2016 Apr;202(4):1575-84. doi: 10.1534/genetics.116.186783. Epub 2016 Feb 19.

Quantitative Single-Embryo Profile of Drosophila Genome Activation and the Dorsal-Ventral Patterning Network.

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Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125.
Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125


During embryonic development of Drosophila melanogaster, the maternal-to-zygotic transition (MZT) marks a significant and rapid turning point when zygotic transcription begins and control of development is transferred from maternally deposited transcripts. Characterizing the sequential activation of the genome during the MZT requires precise timing and a sensitive assay to measure changes in expression. We utilized the NanoString nCounter instrument, which directly counts messenger RNA transcripts without reverse transcription or amplification, to study >70 genes expressed along the dorsal-ventral (DV) axis of early Drosophila embryos, dividing the MZT into 10 time points. Transcripts were quantified for every gene studied at all time points, providing the first dataset of absolute numbers of transcripts during Drosophila development. We found that gene expression changes quickly during the MZT, with early nuclear cycle 14 (NC14) the most dynamic time for the embryo. twist is one of the most abundant genes in the entire embryo and we use mutants to quantitatively demonstrate how it cooperates with Dorsal to activate transcription and is responsible for some of the rapid changes in transcription observed during early NC14. We also uncovered elements within the gene regulatory network that maintain precise transcript levels for sets of genes that are spatiotemporally cotranscribed within the presumptive mesoderm or dorsal ectoderm. Using these new data, we show that a fine-scale, quantitative analysis of temporal gene expression can provide new insights into developmental biology by uncovering trends in gene networks, including coregulation of target genes and specific temporal input by transcription factors.


Drosophila melanogaster; NanoString nCounter; dorsal–ventral patterning; gene expression; maternal-to-zygotic transition; transcription

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