Antagonistic BMP-cWNT signaling in the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis reveals insight into the evolution of mesoderm [Evolution]
Gastrulation was arguably the key evolutionary innovation that enabled metazoan diversification, leading to the formation of distinct germ layers and specialized tissues. Differential gene expression specifying cell fate is governed by the inputs of intracellular and/or extracellular signals. Beta-catenin/Tcf and the TGF-beta bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) provide critical molecular signaling inputs during germ layer specification in bilaterian metazoans, but there has been no direct experimental evidence for a specific role for BMP signaling during endomesoderm specification in the early branching metazoan Nematostella vectensis (an anthozoan cnidarian). Using forward transcriptomics, we show that beta-catenin/Tcf signaling and BMP2/4 signaling provide differential inputs into the cnidarian endomesodermal gene regulatory network (GRN) at the onset of gastrulation (24 h postfertilization) in N. vectensis. Surprisingly, beta-catenin/Tcf signaling and BMP2/4 signaling regulate a subset of common downstream target genes in the GRN in opposite ways, leading to the spatial and temporal differentiation of fields of cells in the developing embryo. Thus, we show that regulatory interactions between beta-catenin/Tcf signaling and BMP2/4 signaling are required for the specification and determination of different embryonic regions and the patterning of the oral–aboral axis in Nematostella. We also show functionally that the conserved “kernel” of the bilaterian heart mesoderm GRN is operational in N. vectensis, which reinforces the hypothesis that the endoderm and mesoderm in triploblastic bilaterians evolved from the bifunctional endomesoderm (gastrodermis) of a diploblastic ancestor, and that slow rhythmic contractions might have been one of the earliest functions of mesodermal tissue.
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