Craniofacial development is regulated through dynamic and complex mechanisms that involve various signaling cascades and gene regulations. Disruption of such regulations can result in craniofacial birth defects. Here, we propose the first developmental stage-specific network approach by integrating two crucial regulators, transcription factors (TFs) and microRNAs (miRNAs), to study their co-regulation during craniofacial development. Specifically, we used TFs, miRNAs and non-TF genes to form feed-forward loops (FFLs) using genomic data covering mouse embryonic days E10.5 to E14.5. We identified key novel regulators (TFs Foxm1, Hif1a, Zbtb16, Myog, Myod1 and Tcf7, and miRNAs miR-340-5p and miR-129-5p) and target genes (Col1a1, Sgms2 and Slc8a3) expression of which changed in a developmental stage-dependent manner. We found that the Wnt-FoxO-Hippo pathway (from E10.5 to E11.5), tissue remodeling (from E12.5 to E13.5) and miR-129-5p-mediated Col1a1 regulation (from E10.5 to E14.5) might play crucial roles in craniofacial development. Enrichment analyses further suggested their functions. Our experiments validated the regulatory roles of miR-340-5p and Foxm1 in the Wnt-FoxO-Hippo subnetwork, as well as the role of miR-129-5p in the miR-129-5p–Col1a1 subnetwork. Thus, our study helps understand the comprehensive regulatory mechanisms for craniofacial development.

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