Developmental gene regulatory network evolution: insights from comparative studies in echinoderms.
One of the central concerns of Evolutionary Developmental biology is to understand how the specification of cell types can change during evolution. In the last decade, developmental biology has progressed toward a systems level understanding of cell specification processes. In particular, the focus has been on determining the regulatory interactions of the repertoire of genes that make up gene regulatory networks (GRNs). Echinoderms provide an extraordinary model system for determining how GRNs evolve. This review highlights the comparative GRN analyses arising from the echinoderm system. This work shows that certain types of GRN subcircuits or motifs, i.e., those involving positive feedback, tend to be conserved and may provide a constraint on development. This conservation may be due to a required arrangement of transcription factor binding sites in cis regulatory modules. The review will also discuss ways in which novelty may arise, in particular through the co-option of regulatory genes and subcircuits. The development of the sea urchin larval skeleton, a novel feature that arose in echinoderms, has provided a model for study of co-option mechanisms. Finally, the types of GRNs that can permit the great diversity in the patterns of ciliary bands and their associated neurons found among these taxa are discussed. The availability of genomic resources is rapidly expanding for echinoderms, including genome sequences not only for multiple species of sea urchins but also a species of sea star, sea cucumber, and brittle star. This will enable echinoderms to become a particularly powerful system for understanding how developmental GRNs evolve.