After fertilization in C. elegans, activities encoded by the maternally expressed par genes appear to establish cellular and embryonic polarity. Loss-of-function mutations in the par genes disrupt anterior-posterior (a-p) asymmetries in early embryos and result in highly abnormal patterns of cell fate. Little is known about how the early asymmetry defects are related to the cell fate patterning defects in par mutant embryos, or about how the par gene products affect the localization and activities of developmental regulators known to specify the cell fate patterns made by individual blastomeres. Examples of such regulators of blastomere identity include the maternal proteins MEX-3 and GLP-1, expressed at high levels anteriorly, and SKN-1 and PAL-1, expressed at high levels posteriorly in early embryos. To better define par gene functions, we examined the expression patterns of MEX-3, PAL-1 and SKN-1, and we analyzed mex-3, pal-1, skn-1 and glp-1 activities in par mutant embryos. We have found that mutational inactivation of each par gene results in a unique phenotype, but in no case do we observe a complete loss of a-p asymmetry. We conclude that no one par gene is required for all a-p asymmetry and we suggest that, in some cases, the par genes act independently of each other to control cell fate patterning and polarity. Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for understanding how the initial establishment of polarity in the zygote by the par gene products leads to the proper localization of more specifically acting regulators of blastomere identity.

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