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Gene regulatory network for neurogenesis in a sea star embryo connects broad neural specification and localized patterning.
A great challenge in development biology is to understand how interacting networks of regulatory genes can direct the often highly complex patterning of cells in a 3D embryo. Here, we detail the gene regulatory network that describes the distribution of ciliary band-associated neurons in the bipinnaria larva of the sea star. This larva, typically for the ancestral deuterostome dipleurula larval type that it represents, forms two loops of ciliary bands that extend across much of the anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral ectoderm. We show that the sea star first likely uses maternally inherited factors and the Wnt and Delta pathways to distinguish neurogenic ectoderm from endomesoderm. The broad neurogenic potential of the ectoderm persists throughout much of gastrulation. Nodal, bone morphogenetic protein 2/4 (Bmp2/4), and Six3-dependent pathways then sculpt a complex ciliary band territory that is defined by the expression of the forkhead transcription factor, foxg. Foxg is needed to define two molecularly distinct ectodermal domains, and for the formation of differentiated neurons along the edge of these two territories. Thus, significantly, Bmp2/4 signaling in sea stars does not distinguish differentiated neurons from nonneuronal ectoderm as it does in many other animals, but instead contributes to the patterning of an ectodermal territory, which then, in turn, provides cues to permit the final steps of neuronal differentiation. The modularity between specification and patterning likely reflects the evolutionary history of this gene regulatory network, in which an ancient module for specification of a broad neurogenic potential ectoderm was subsequently overlaid with a module for patterning.