We are investigating the involvement of the microfilament cytoskeleton in the development of early Caenorhabditis elegans embryos. We previously reported that several cytoplasmic movements in the zygote require that the microfilament cytoskeleton remain intact during a narrow time interval approximately three-quarters of the way through the first cell cycle. In this study, we analyze the developmental consequences of brief, cytochalasin D-induced microfilament disruption during the 1-cell stage. Our results indicate that during the first cell cycle microfilaments are important only during the critical time interval for the 2-cell embryo to undergo the correct pattern of subsequent divisions and to initiate the differentiation of at least 4 tissue types. Disruption of microfilaments during the critical interval results in aberrant division and P-granule segregation patterns, generating some embryos that we classify as ‘reverse polarity’, ‘anterior duplication’, and ‘posterior duplication’ embryos. These altered patterns suggest that microfilament disruption during the critical interval leads to the incorrect distribution of developmental instructions responsible for early pattern formation. The strict correlation between unequal division, unequal germ-granule partitioning, and the generation of daughter cells with different cell cycle periods observed in these embryos suggests that the three processes are coupled. We hypothesize that (1) an ‘asymmetry determinant’, normally located at the posterior end of the zygote, governs asymmetric cell division, germ-granule segregation, and the segregation of cell cycle timing elements during the first cell cycle, and (2) the integrity or placement of this asymmetry determinant is sensitive to microfilament disruption during the critical time interval.

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