Spatially varying cis-regulatory divergence in <i>Drosophila</i> embryos elucidates cis-regulatory logic

by Peter A. Combs, Hunter B. Fraser

Spatial patterning of gene expression is a key process in development, yet how it evolves is still poorly understood. Both cis- and trans-acting changes could participate in complex interactions, so to isolate the cis-regulatory component of patterning evolution, we measured allele-specific spatial gene expression patterns in D. melanogaster × simulans hybrid embryos. RNA-seq of cryo-sectioned slices revealed 66 genes with strong spatially varying allele-specific expression. We found that hunchback, a major regulator of developmental patterning, had reduced expression of the D. simulans allele specifically in the anterior tip of hybrid embryos. Mathematical modeling of hunchback cis-regulation suggested a candidate transcription factor binding site variant, which we verified as causal using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. In sum, even comparing morphologically near-identical species we identified surprisingly extensive spatial variation in gene expression, suggesting not only that development is robust to many such changes, but also that natural selection may have ample raw material for evolving new body plans via changes in spatial patterning.

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