Functional analysis of the sea urchinorthodenticle-related gene, SPOTX, in aboral ectoderm-specific gene activation and aboral ectoderm cell fate specification

Chai-An Mao, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


An important question in developmental biology is how embryonic cell types are derived from a fertilized egg. To address this question, this thesis investigates the mechanisms by which the aboral ectoderm-specific Spec2a gene is spatially and temporally regulated during sea urchin embryogenesis. The Spec2a gene of the sea urchin Strongylocentratus purpuratus has served as a valuable maker to understand the basis of lineage-specific gene activation and the role of transcription factors in cell fate specification. The hypothesis is that transcription factors responsible for cell type-specific gene activation are key components in the initial cell specification step. The Spec2a gene, which encodes a small cytosolic calcium-binding protein, is expressed exclusively in aboral ectoderm cell lineages. The 1516-bp control region of the Spec2a gene contains a 188-bp enhancer element required for temporal activation and aboral ectoderm/mesenchyme cell expression, while an unidentified element upstream of the enhancer represses expression in mesenchyme cells. Using an enhancer activation assay, combined with site-directed mutagenesis, I showed that three TAATCC/T sites within the enhancer are responsible for enhancer activity. Mutagenizing these sites and a fourth one just upstream abolished all activity from the Spec2a control region. A 77-bp DNA fragment from the Spec2a enhancer containing two of the TAATCC/T sites is sufficient for aboral ectoderm/mesenchyme cell expression. A cDNA encoding SpOtx, an orthodenticle-related protein, was cloned from S. purpuratus and shown to bind with high affinity to the TAATCC/T sequences within the Spec2a control region. SpOtx transcripts were found initially in all cells of the cleaving embryo, but they gradually became restricted to oral ectoderm and endoderm cells, suggesting that SpOtx might play a role in the initial temporal activation of the Spec2a gene and most likely has additional functions in the developing embryo. To reveal the broader biological functions of SpOtx, I injected SpOtx mRNA into living sea urchin eggs to determine what effects overexpressing the SpOtx protein might have on embryo development. SpOtx mRNA-injected embryos displayed dramatic alterations in development. Instead of developing into pluteus larvae with 15 different cell types, uniform epithelia balls were formed. These balls consisted of a thin layer of squamous cells with short cilia highly reminiscent of aboral ectoderm. Immunohistochemical staining and RT-PCR demonstrated that the SpOtx-injected embryoids expressed aboral ectoderm markers uniformly, but showed very weak or no expression of markers for non-aboral ectoderm cell types. These data strongly suggested that overexpression of SpOtx redirected the normal fate of non-aboral ectoderm cells to that of aboral ectoderm. These results show that SpOtx is involved in aboral ectoderm differentiation by activating aboral ectoderm-specific genes and that modulating its expression can lead to changes in cell fate.

Subject Area

Molecular biology|Genetics|Cellular biology

Recommended Citation

Mao, Chai-An, "Functional analysis of the sea urchinorthodenticle-related gene, SPOTX, in aboral ectoderm-specific gene activation and aboral ectoderm cell fate specification" (1996). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI9705765.