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The segment polarity network is a robust developmental module


All insects possess homologous segments, but segment specification differs radically among insect orders. In Drosophila, maternal morphogens control the patterned activation of gap genes, which encode transcriptional regulators that shape the patterned expression of pair-rule genes. This patterning cascade takes place before cellularization. Pair-rule gene products subsequently ‘imprint’ segment polarity genes with reiterated patterns, thus defining the primordial segments. This mechanism must be greatly modified in insect groups in which many segments emerge only after cellularization1. In beetles and parasitic wasps, for instance, pair-rule homologues are expressed in patterns consistent with roles during segmentation, but these patterns emerge within cellular fields2,3,4. In contrast, although in locusts pair-rule homologues may not control segmentation5,6, some segment polarity genes and their interactions are conserved3,7,8,9,10. Perhaps segmentation is modular, with each module autonomously expressing a characteristic intrinsic behaviour in response to transient stimuli. If so, evolution could rearrange inputs to modules without changing their intrinsic behaviours. Here we suggest, using computer simulations, that the Drosophila segment polarity genes constitute such a module, and that this module is resistant to variations in the kinetic constants that govern its behaviour.

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Figure 1: Segment polarity gene expression in Drosophila, pattern from wild type and several computer generated ‘solutions’.
Figure 2: Graphic representation of ‘solutions’ obtained with crisp or degraded initial conditions.
Figure 3: Sensitivity of individual solutions to varying individual parameters.

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We acknowledge encouragement and support from D. Nasser and the NSF. E.M. was supported by a HHMI predoctoral fellowship.

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Correspondence to George von Dassow.

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von Dassow, G., Meir, E., Munro, E. et al. The segment polarity network is a robust developmental module. Nature 406, 188–192 (2000).

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