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A conserved gene regulatory network subcircuit drives different developmental fates in the vegetal pole of highly divergent echinoderm embryos.
Comparisons of orthologous developmental gene regulatory networks (GRNs) from different organisms explain how transcriptional regulation can, or cannot, change over time to cause morphological evolution and stasis. Here, we examine a subset of the GRN connections in the central vegetal pole mesoderm of the late sea star blastula and compare them to the GRN for the same embryonic territory of sea urchins. In modern sea urchins, this territory gives rise to skeletogenic mesoderm; in sea stars, it develops into other mesodermal derivatives. Orthologs of many transcription factors that function in the sea urchin skeletogenic mesoderm are co-expressed in the sea star vegetal pole, although this territory does not form a larval skeleton. Systematic perturbation of erg, hex, tbr, and tgif gene function was used to construct a snapshot of the sea star mesoderm GRN. A comparison of this network to the sea urchin skeletogenic mesoderm GRN revealed a conserved, recursively wired subcircuit operating in both organisms. We propose that, while these territories have evolved different functions in sea urchins and sea stars, this subcircuit is part of an ancestral GRN governing echinoderm vegetal pole mesoderm development. The positive regulatory feedback between these transcription factors may explain the conservation of this subcircuit.