Spatiotemporal gene expression is the activation of genes within specific tissues of an organism at specific times during development. Gene activation patterns vary widely in complexity. Some are straightforward and static, such as the pattern of tubulin, which is expressed in all cells at all times in life. Some, on the other hand, are extraordinarily intricate and difficult to predict and model, with expression fluctuating wildly from minute to minute or from cell to cell. Spatiotemporal variation plays a key role in generating the diversity of cell types found in developed organisms; since the identity of a cell is specified by the collection of genes actively expressed within that cell, if gene expression was uniform spatially and temporally, there could be at most one kind of cell.
Consider the gene wingless, a member of the wnt family of genes. In the early embryonic development of the model organism Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly, wingless is expressed across almost the entire embryo in alternating stripes three cells separated. This pattern is lost by the time the organism develops into a larva, but wingless is still expressed in a variety of tissues such as the wing imaginal discs, patches of tissue that will develop into the adult wings. The spatiotemporal pattern of wingless gene expression is determined by a network of regulatory interactions consisting of the effects of many different genes such as even-skipped and Krüppel.
What causes spatial and temporal differences in the expression of a single gene? Because current expression patterns depend strictly on previous expression patterns, there is a regressive problem of explaining what caused the first differences in gene expression. The process by which uniform gene expression becomes spatially and temporally differential is known as symmetry breaking. For example, in the case of embryonic Drosophila development, the genes nanos and bicoid are asymmetrically expressed in the oocyte because maternal cells deposit messenger RNA (mRNA) for these genes in the poles of the egg before it is laid.
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