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Activation of the skeletogenic gene regulatory network in the early sea urchin embryo.
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The gene regulatory network (GRN) that underlies the development of the embryonic skeleton in sea urchins is an important model for understanding the architecture and evolution of developmental GRNs. The initial deployment of the network is thought to be regulated by a derepression mechanism, which is mediated by the products of the pmar1 and hesC genes. Here, we show that the activation of the skeletogenic network occurs by a mechanism that is distinct from the transcriptional repression of hesC. By means of quantitative, fluorescent whole-mount in situ hybridization, we find that two pivotal early genes in the network, alx1 and delta, are activated in prospective skeletogenic cells prior to the downregulation of hesC expression. An analysis of the upstream regulation of alx1 shows that this gene is regulated by MAPK signaling and by the transcription factor Ets1; however, these inputs influence only the maintenance of alx1 expression and not its activation, which occurs by a distinct mechanism. By altering normal cleavage patterns, we show that the zygotic activation of alx1 and delta, but not that of pmar1, is dependent upon the unequal division of vegetal blastomeres. Based on these findings, we conclude that the widely accepted double-repression model is insufficient to account for the localized activation of the skeletogenic GRN. We postulate the existence of additional, unidentified repressors that are controlled by pmar1, and propose that the ability of pmar1 to derepress alx1 and delta is regulated by the unequal division of vegetal blastomeres.