Creating order despite the noise

Imaging studies of fruit fly embryos are helping to reveal how noisy systems at the molecular level can still produce consistent body patterns in animal embryos.
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Representative reconstructed 3D light-sheet microcopy images showing the nuclei (blue) and distribution of Hb (red) in a stau-lacking mutant embryo at an early (top) and late stage (bottom). Image credit: Yang, Zhu, Kong et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Broadly speaking, all individuals of any animal species share a highly consistent shape and structure. Despite this, the activity of the genes that control these body patterns can vary significantly. There are currently two models that have been proposed for how noisy systems of genes, and the proteins they code, can produce consistent body patterns. The first, suggests the noise is essentially self-compensating so stably produces the same result, while the second invokes localized self-organizing systems that help to refine the structural details.

In the early stages of development for the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, one of the proteins that controls body patterns is called Hunchback (often just Hb for short). The Hb proteins are largely found at the front-end of the fly embryo, with a sharp drop near the middle. Normally the position of the drop in Hb varies between flies by around 1% of the total length of the fly embryo. Previous work has linked a gene called staufan (or stau for short) to the distribution of Hb in flies but the mechanism involved is unknown.

Yang, Zhu, Kong et al. have now used a technique called light sheet microscopy to accurately measure the location of Hb proteins in fruit fly embryos. Without the stau gene, the average position of the drop in Hb proteins underwent a larger shift towards the rear at a key stage in development. Despite this altered behavior, the extent of variation between flies did not change. Similarly, the variation of other genes that control Hb location and that are controlled by Hb remained unchanged. As such, it seems stau affects Hb positioning but has no impact on variation between individuals.

These findings suggest that both models for controlling variation in fly development could still be relevant and may operate together. This study also provides a new method for the more precise measurement of systems like these that may offer insights into the mechanisms involved in early embryonic development.