From DNA transcription to visible structure: What the development of multicellular animals teaches us

Acta Biotheoretica 36 (2) (1987)
Abstract
This article is concerned with the problem of the relation between the genetic information contained in the DNA and the emergence of visible structure in multicellular animals. The answer is sought in a reappraisal of the data of experimental embryology, considering molecular, cellular and organismal aspects. The presence of specific molecules only confers a tissue identity on the cells when their concentration exceeds the threshold of differentiation. When this condition is not fulfilled the activity of the genes that code for the specific molecules in question only confers on them a histogenetic potency, i.e. the capacity to form the corresponding tissue in further development (or to transdifferentiate to that tissue). The progressive restriction of histogenetic potencies during development reflects the irreversible repression of more and more genes. The establishment of a given tissue identity under the influence of an inducing tissue (or a morphogenetic hormone) is only possible when the cells have acquired the competence to respond. Tissue differentiation proceeds progressively during development thanks to the cytoplasmic memory that cells retain collectively (or sometimes individually) of the items of information successively registered by their ancestors cells. The increasing complexity of visible structure emerging during development results only from the progression of tissue differentiation. This involves continual exchange of information among the cells and leads to (1) cell displacements and rearrangements, particularly during organogenesis and (2) extreme diversification of cell individualities within tissues, particularly during postembryonic growth. A mutation (just as a teratogenic factor) evokes an anomaly that is localized in both space and time because it alters a certain aspect of cell behaviour (particularly cell surface adhesiveness or mitotic activity) at the time when this is involved in the establishment of a particular structural trait. Neither the organization of the adult nor the modalities of development are encoded in the DNA. The automatic concatenation of cell interactions in the embryo and the structural amplification it entails is conditioned by the specific biochemical composition of the cytoplasm of the egg and by the heterogeneous distribution of its inclusions.
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