The precise assembly of tissues and organs relies on spatiotemporal regulation of gene expression to coordinate the collective behavior of cells. In Drosophila embryos, the midgut musculature is formed through collective migration of caudal visceral mesoderm (CVM) cells, but how gene expression changes as cells migrate is not well understood. Here, we have focused on ten genes expressed in the CVM and the cis-regulatory sequences controlling their expression. Although some genes are continuously expressed, others are expressed only early or late during migration. Late expression relates to cell cycle progression, as driving string/Cdc25 causes earlier division of CVM cells and accelerates the transition to late gene expression. In particular, we found that the cell cycle effector transcription factor E2F1 is a required input for the late gene CG5080. Furthermore, whereas late genes are broadly expressed in all CVM cells, early gene transcripts are polarized to the anterior or posterior ends of the migrating collective. We show this polarization requires transcription factors Snail, Zfh1 and Dorsocross. Collectively, these results identify two sequential gene expression programs bridged by cell division that support long-distance directional migration of CVM cells.

Collective cell behavior is controlled by a variety of different cues, many of which intersect in a multitude of elegant ways, to promote precise morphogenetic events such as forward motility, proliferation and cell death (Lecuit and Le Goff, 2007). Dysregulation of any of these processes can have serious consequences, including abnormal function and the development of diseases such as cancer (Friedl and Gilmour, 2009; Letai, 2017). The regulation of morphogenetic programs, such as collective cell migration, often involves the interpretation of extracellular signals. Dynamic gene expression has been associated with various stages of cell migration for individual cells as well as collectives, and likely controls the changing morphological behaviors associated with cells as they accomplish long-distance migrations (e.g. Busch et al., 2008; Schwarz et al., 2012; Morrison et al., 2021). Studying how this dynamic gene expression is regulated may provide insight into the inputs cells use to navigate their changing environments.

In Drosophila, the caudal visceral mesoderm (CVM) cells undergo a long-distance, directional migration from posterior to anterior in order to position themselves along the entire length of the developing gut and ultimately help form the longitudinal muscles of the gut (Sun et al., 2020). CVM cell migration takes ∼6 h, one quarter of Drosophila embryogenesis (∼24 h); therefore, the microenvironment changes drastically over the course of their migration as the embryonic tissues diversify in complexity. CVM cells originate at the ventroposterior end of the cellular blastoderm embryo (stage 5), through the combined input of mesodermal gene snail (sna) and terminal genes brachyenteron (byn) and forkhead (fkh), but not requiring the mesodermal gene twist (Kusch and Reuter, 1999). At stage 10, after germband extension, the CVM cells initiate synchronous bilateral migration. First, cells move along the posterior midgut (PMG) before traveling along the trunk visceral mesoderm (TVM) cells, which serve as the substrate track (Macabenta and Stathopoulos, 2019). Transcription factors (TFs) HLH54F, Byn, Fkh and Zinc-finger homeodomain 1 (Zfh1) are required for normal migration of the CVM cells (Kusch and Reuter, 1999; Ismat et al., 2010). Although fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling is known to play a role, as FGF mutant CVM cells appear to veer away from the TVM substratum and ultimately undergo apoptosis (Mandal et al., 2004; Kadam et al., 2012), little is known about how these mesodermal TFs coordinate to control migration or what extracellular cues are influential.

About halfway through their migration, the CVM cells undergo cell cycle-dependent quality control that involves intersecting signals by FGF and bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) (Macabenta et al., 2022). During anteriorward migration, the CVM cells encounter and process secreted Decapentaplegic (Dpp) ligand, the Drosophila BMP2/4 homolog. Dpp initiates G2-M cell cycle progression in the CVM cells, which results in coordinated cell division at stage 11/12. Additionally, this G2-M transition promotes the upregulation of the cell death gene head involution defective (hid) in all CVM cells, which allows for the rapid elimination of any cells that have wandered away from the TVM substrate. FGF signaling through the CVM-expressed FGF receptor Heartless, which is activated by FGF ligands expressed in the TVM, directly antagonizes pro-apoptotic Hid protein, which ensures the survival of cells that have remained on-track (on the TVM) but promotes death for those that have wandered off-track. Although this previous study demonstrated that balanced input by FGF and BMP signaling is important to support cell survival and proliferation, how cells modulate their gene expression programs before and after this quality control decision remains poorly understood.

In attempts to gain additional insight into regulatory mechanisms affecting CVM cell migration, we obtained transcriptomic information using either RNA sequencing of an enriched CVM cell sample (Bae et al., 2017) or single-cell analysis of embryos at the gastrulation stage (Sun et al., 2023). A number of genes have been identified that are enriched within the CVM at stages 10-11. Surprisingly, gene expression was retained in FGF mutants for all those examined (Bae et al., 2017). However, given our finding that expression of hid in CVM cells is regulated by the cell cycle (Macabenta et al., 2022), we hypothesized that the cell cycle may more broadly influence gene expression in these cells. Additionally, analysis of our recent single-cell RNA-seq dataset showed that expression within the CVM migrating collective can be polarized, with genes kon-tiki (kon) and Dorsocross 2 (Doc2) enriched in anterior cells and the gene Grip enriched in posterior cells (Sun et al., 2023). In this study, we describe how spatial and temporal gene expression is controlled within this migrating collective through analysis of enhancer sequences and TF inputs, and by further investigating the role of the cell cycle.

Identification of enhancers that drive gene expression in migrating CVM cells

To understand how gene expression is regulated as CVM cells migrate, we sought to characterize the TFs that are continuously expressed by CVM cells during stages 11-13. Byn, Fkh and Sna TFs regulate CVM specification at stage 5 by controlling the localization of HLH54F expression in a ventroposterior region of the cellular blastoderm embryo, but are no longer expressed in the CVM following stage 10 (germband elongated embryo) (Ip et al., 1994; Kusch and Reuter, 1999; Ismat et al., 2010). CVM cells continuously express HLH54F throughout their migration (Fig. 1A; Ismat et al., 2010). Zfh1, the Drosophila homolog of ZEB, is a putative transcriptional repressor that contains zinc fingers and homeodomains (Postigo et al., 1999), and is expressed in CVM cells from stage 5 onwards, including stage 13 (Broihier et al., 1998; Bae et al., 2017). However, at stage 12, zfh1 transcripts are barely detectable, but protein products are present in nuclei at low levels (Fig. S1A,B). Both HLH54F and zfh1 play important roles in regulating gene expression within the CVM cells and are required for their migration, survival and differentiation (Ismat et al., 2010; Bae et al., 2017).

Fig. 1.

Enhancers supporting expression in CVM cells exhibit spatiotemporal differences in gene expression outputs. (A-B′) Drosophila embryo time series (stage 10-13) showing expression detected by in situ hybridization using a hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probe to HLH54F transcript (magenta) either alone (A) or when colocalized relative to zfh1 (green; B). B′ is a magnified view of CVM cells outlined in B. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. (C) ChIP data for the transcription factors Zfh1, Bin, Mef2 and Doc2. Regions assayed for enhancer activity are highlighted in green (Zfh1-binding enriched) or blue (Zfh1-binding not enriched). (D) Reporter outputs for indicated enhancer regions (C) using in situ hybridization with regular riboprobes to GAL4 and HLH54F or with HCR probes to lacZ and HLH54F. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 1.

Enhancers supporting expression in CVM cells exhibit spatiotemporal differences in gene expression outputs. (A-B′) Drosophila embryo time series (stage 10-13) showing expression detected by in situ hybridization using a hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probe to HLH54F transcript (magenta) either alone (A) or when colocalized relative to zfh1 (green; B). B′ is a magnified view of CVM cells outlined in B. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. (C) ChIP data for the transcription factors Zfh1, Bin, Mef2 and Doc2. Regions assayed for enhancer activity are highlighted in green (Zfh1-binding enriched) or blue (Zfh1-binding not enriched). (D) Reporter outputs for indicated enhancer regions (C) using in situ hybridization with regular riboprobes to GAL4 and HLH54F or with HCR probes to lacZ and HLH54F. Scale bars: 50 μm.

We used available ChIP-seq data for Zfh1 and several other TFs expressed in the CVM. Biniou (Bin) is the sole Drosophila representative of the FoxF family of forkhead domain genes and has a key role in the specification of visceral mesoderm and its derived gut musculature (Zaffran et al., 2001). Mef2 is a MADS-box TF with a general role in gene expression in muscles, including the visceral mesoderm (Lilly et al., 1995). Dorsocross 2 (Doc2) is one of three T-box TFs (Doc1, Doc2 and Doc3) encoded by the Dorsocross cluster; Doc2 and Doc1 paralogs are both expressed in the CVM (Reim et al., 2003; Ismat et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2023). Using the available ChIP data relating to these four TFs (i.e. Zfh1, Bin, Mef2 and Doc2; Jakobsen et al., 2007; Zinzen et al., 2009; Junion et al., 2012; Wu et al., 2019), we scanned for their co-occupancy to DNA sequences flanking 16 genes that had previously been confirmed to be expressed in actively migrating CVM cells during stages 10-13 (Bae et al., 2017). Enhancers regulating HLH54F and Doc2 had been identified previously (Ismat et al., 2010; Kadam et al., 2012). We found Zfh1, Bin, Mef2 and/or Doc2 ChIP-occupied regions corresponding to these published enhancer sequences (Fig. 1C: HLH54F and Doc2). Moreover, the ChIP binding within the HLH54F intron identified a more minimal enhancer sequence of 653 bp able to support reporter expression in the CVM (Fig. 1D).

Taking a similar approach, we also scanned genomic sequences in the vicinity of the other 14 genes for occupancy of these factors Zfh1, Bin, Mef2 and Doc2 to flanking non-coding sequences (Fig. 1C). Putative enhancer regions were tested through reporter assay (see Materials and Methods), and eight additional enhancers were identified supporting expression related to the following genes: beaten path IIa (beat-IIa), beaten path IIb (beatII-b), CG5080, kon-tiki (kon), multiple edematous wings (mew), snail (sna), Syntrophin-like 2 (Syn2) and zfh1. Expression associated with each reporter (i.e. Gal4 or lacZ) was colocalized with HLH54F using in situ hybridization in fixed embryos at stages 10-13, confirming their expression in CVM cells (Fig. 1D; see Materials and Methods). A subset failed to support expression (Fig. S1C). Of the ten enhancer sequences that support expression in the CVM, six are associated with a clear Zfh1-binding peak (i.e. HLH54F, beat-IIb, kon, mew, Syn2 and zfh1) and four are not (i.e. beat-IIa, CG5080, Doc2 and sna) (Fig. 1C). We postulate that for those not bound by Zfh1, HLH54F is the pivotal input to maintain CVM cell identity, as Zfh1 has been suggested to carry out a parallel function by supporting cell migration (Ismat et al., 2010).

Characterization of dynamic gene expression within CVM cells and comparison to enhancer-supported expression

To fully capture the spatiotemporal gene expression patterns associated with these ten genes, we performed in situ hybridization with more specific and sensitive hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probes, finding that they exhibit differences but generally fall into three classes. Low levels of mew can be detected in the CVM cells as they are specified and extend beyond stage 13, overlapping with HLH54F and zfh1 expression; these three genes make up the continuously expressed contingent (Fig. 2A, shown for stages 10-13). In contrast, genes sna, kon and Doc2 initiate expression at stage 10 or earlier, with varied dynamics (Fig. 2B). sna is expressed in the CVM progenitor cells (stage 5) (Ismat et al., 2010) and continues to be expressed in CVM progenitors until expression is extinguished after stage 10 (Fig. 2B). Meanwhile, kon is expressed at stage 8, becomes enriched in a subset of cells located at the migrating front, and then expands expression to all cells later to support muscle fusion (Fig. 2B). A third set of genes initiates expression later, around stage 11, with beat-IIb expressed slightly earlier and CG5080 expressed later (towards stage 12) (Fig. 2C). In summary, three dynamic trends were identified: genes are (1) co-expressed with HLH54F continuously throughout the entire CVM development (‘continuous’; Fig. 2A), (2) initiated by stage 10 before the beginning of cell migration (‘early’; Fig. 2B) or (3) initiate at stage 11 when cells are actively migrating (‘late’; Fig. 2C).

Fig. 2.

Characterization of genes expressed in migrating CVM cells. (A-C) CVM-specific gene expression facilitated by colocalization of transcripts using hybridization chain reaction probes for indicated genes (green) and HLH54F (magenta) through in situ hybridization. Genes are either continuously expressed (A), expressed predominantly early but become restricted (B) or expressed late (C). Asterisks in C indicate initiation of late gene expression. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 2.

Characterization of genes expressed in migrating CVM cells. (A-C) CVM-specific gene expression facilitated by colocalization of transcripts using hybridization chain reaction probes for indicated genes (green) and HLH54F (magenta) through in situ hybridization. Genes are either continuously expressed (A), expressed predominantly early but become restricted (B) or expressed late (C). Asterisks in C indicate initiation of late gene expression. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

To determine whether enhancer activity reflects these dynamic gene expression patterns, we compared reporter expression supported by the ten enhancers to that of the endogenous genes they normally regulate. Reporter expression driven by enhancer sequences associated with genes HLH54F, sna, Doc2, beat-IIa, beat-IIb and CG5080 was found to fully recapitulate the endogenous expression of the respective genes (compare Fig. 2A-C with Fig. 1D). However, for some genes (i.e. mew, zfh1 and kon), the identified enhancer represents only a subset of the temporal expression pattern of the respective gene. For example, the mew enhancer is only expressed late (Fig. 1D, see mew.v-Gal4), but the gene is continuously expressed (Fig. 2A, mew). This suggests that another enhancer, currently uncharacterized but possibly relating to other peaks occupied by TFs, likely supports the early expression pattern of mew.

To obtain independent confirmation of the dynamic trends identified by in situ hybridization, we examined a single-cell (sc) RNA-seq dataset produced in a previous study (Sun et al., 2023). Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection (UMAP) technique in Seurat (Stuart et al., 2019) was used to reduce the dimensionality of RNA-seq data of all single-cells isolated from embryos to a 2D plot that groups cells into clusters; in particular, cluster 10 relates to the CVM (Fig. 3A). Here, we further extended the analysis of cluster 10 by conducting Monocle2 pseudotime analysis to identify multiple cell states. This approach applies machine learning to single-cell transcriptomic data to order cells by their relative progression over a trajectory, or in pseudo-developmental time (Trapnell et al., 2014; Qiu et al., 2017). UMAP visualization of pseudotime analysis suggests younger cells of the cluster are located at the base (cyan) on the UMAP plot in comparison with older cells that are located at the tip (dark blue) (Fig. 3A′). This pseudotime model, coupled with UMAP display of expression data for individual genes, suggests expression of sna, kon and Doc2 is associated with younger cells (‘early’; pseudotime ∼10), and expression of beat-IIb, beat-IIa and CG5080 is associated with older cells (‘late’; pseudotime ∼15) (compare Fig. 3C,D with Fig. 3A′). In contrast, HLH54F- and mew-positive cells are associated with a larger fraction of cells within this cluster, suggesting these genes are expressed continuously, including at early and late stages (compare Fig. 3B with Fig. 3A′; ‘continuous’, pseudotime ∼10-15). Likewise, zfh1 is continuously expressed in the CVM, associated with all cells expressing HLH54F. zfh1 is also broadly expressed throughout the mesoderm both within and outside cluster 10, and later on in other muscle subtypes (compare Fig. 3B with Fig. 3A′; Lai et al., 1991; Postigo and Dean, 1997). Syn2 transcripts were not detected by the scRNA-seq. In all, the scRNA-seq provides a parallel approach to in situ hybridization (see Fig. 2) in identifying genes expressed in the CVM as well as to discovering differences in their timing of expression (Fig. 3A-D).

Fig. 3.

scRNA-seq data confirm gene expression dynamics; computational analysis of enhancer sequences identifies important inputs. (A-D) UMAP plots of single-cell transcriptomic data relating to embryos predominantly of stages 7-11 from a published study (Sun et al., 2023) in which CVM cells are contained in one particular cluster 10 (c10, red; A). (A′) Focused view of the UMAP plot of c10 cells (area outlined in A) analyzed by monocle pseudotime analysis in which younger versus older cells are colored in cyan and dark blue, respectively. Expression of the three categories of indicated CVM-expressed genes in c10 with red color intensity indicating the relative levels of gene expression (B-D). (E) UMAP plot showing byn and CG5953 expression suggesting that, although byn is expressed early, CG5953 is expressed late in the CVM (E, compare with C and D). (F) Hybridization chain reaction in situ hybridization confirms the CVM-specific expression of CG5953 at stage 11-12 (cyan) relative to HLH54F (magenta, marking CVM cells). (G) De novo PWM logos identified via XSTREME with comparisons to published motifs; E-value=6e-005 for each motif. (H) Locations of identified consensus binding motifs (de novo motifs from G) on identified enhancers generated by MAST. Block diagrams of enhancers named according to the genes they regulate; zCRM3419 relates to the zfh1.v enhancer that supports the late gene expression (see Fig. 1D). E value for each corresponding enhancer sequence is shown on the left. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bar: 50 μm.

Fig. 3.

scRNA-seq data confirm gene expression dynamics; computational analysis of enhancer sequences identifies important inputs. (A-D) UMAP plots of single-cell transcriptomic data relating to embryos predominantly of stages 7-11 from a published study (Sun et al., 2023) in which CVM cells are contained in one particular cluster 10 (c10, red; A). (A′) Focused view of the UMAP plot of c10 cells (area outlined in A) analyzed by monocle pseudotime analysis in which younger versus older cells are colored in cyan and dark blue, respectively. Expression of the three categories of indicated CVM-expressed genes in c10 with red color intensity indicating the relative levels of gene expression (B-D). (E) UMAP plot showing byn and CG5953 expression suggesting that, although byn is expressed early, CG5953 is expressed late in the CVM (E, compare with C and D). (F) Hybridization chain reaction in situ hybridization confirms the CVM-specific expression of CG5953 at stage 11-12 (cyan) relative to HLH54F (magenta, marking CVM cells). (G) De novo PWM logos identified via XSTREME with comparisons to published motifs; E-value=6e-005 for each motif. (H) Locations of identified consensus binding motifs (de novo motifs from G) on identified enhancers generated by MAST. Block diagrams of enhancers named according to the genes they regulate; zCRM3419 relates to the zfh1.v enhancer that supports the late gene expression (see Fig. 1D). E value for each corresponding enhancer sequence is shown on the left. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bar: 50 μm.

We also explored expression of other TFs within the CVM using this scRNA-seq dataset. For example, the byn gene has been shown to impact CVM cell migration and survival (Kusch and Reuter, 1999). However, comparisons of the sna and byn UMAP profiles (Fig. 3C,E) suggest that expression of byn ceases before that of sna, which occurs at stage 10. Although we cannot eliminate the possibility that the Byn protein product perdures, we decided to focus on genes that are highly expressed in migrating CVM cells.

Comparative studies of enhancer sequences and identification of over-represented motifs

To provide more insight into the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) controlling gene expression dynamics in the CVM, we used computational tools to identify binding sites for TF inputs within the enhancer sequences supporting expression in CVM cells from stages 10-13. Using a computational approach involving motif discovery and enrichment analysis (XSTREME), we scanned all ten enhancer sequences for over-represented sequences of 6-15 bp in length and five over-represented motifs of high significance were found (e≤0.05; see Materials and Methods). Two motifs appear similar to the consensus binding site for HLH54F and Biniou (Fig. 3G, HLH54F-like and Biniou-like), factors that have documented roles in the CVM, including supporting expression through the doc2 enhancer (Zaffran et al., 2001; Ismat et al., 2010); the other motifs match the consensus binding sites of Dorsal, a TF required for embryonic dorsal-ventral patterning (Reeves and Stathopoulos, 2009), and CG5953, a predicted DNA-binding protein containing an N-terminal MADF domain (Fig. 3G, Dorsal/Lola and CG5953). Dorsal acts early in the cellular blastoderm stage to support expression in ventral regions of the embryo where CVM precursor cells are specified. CG5953, on the other hand, is poorly characterized, but its consensus DNA-binding sequence was identified in a large-scale study using bacterial one-hybrid assays to survey the DNA-binding properties of a number of proteins with predicted DNA-binding domains (Shazman et al., 2014). The last sequence motif remains undefined (Fig. 3G, unknown) as it failed to match any entry in the JASPAR database of binding elements.

The CG5953-binding motif is associated with nine out of 10 enhancers (Fig. 3H), and both scRNA-seq data and in situ hybridization show that CG5953 is expressed in CVM cells from stage 11 onwards throughout active migration (Fig. 3E,F). However, in mutant embryos lacking CG5953, only minor migration defects were observed: a small number of CVM cells veer off-track at stage 13 and expression of late gene CG5080 appears slightly delayed (Fig. S2). Considering that other MADF TFs are expressed in the mesoderm (e.g. Mes2), it has been hypothesized that these factors may function redundantly (Zimmermann et al., 2006), which may explain why the loss of CG5953 is not associated with a stronger CVM cell migration phenotype.

Although this enhancer analysis suggests that HLH54F, Biniou, Dorsal/Lola and CG5953 are general inputs acting to support gene expression in the CVM cells, as motifs are associated with most enhancer sequences, no particular motif was found to be associated with a specific class of enhancers (i.e. continuous, early or late).

The influence of the cell cycle on CVM cell dynamic gene expression

CVM cells proliferate during migration and cell cycle regulators have been shown to play important roles in coordinating expression of genes relating to cell proliferation, growth, apoptosis, metabolism and differentiation (Müller et al., 2001; Cam et al., 2004). As the first G1 phase accompanied by E2F1 function in the CVM emerges during the course of CVM migration (Macabenta et al., 2022), we hypothesized that cell cycle progression may present additional regulatory inputs responsible for the distinction of late versus early CVM gene expression. We have previously shown that a FUCCI reporter in which RFP and GFP signals are indicative of S [RFP-Cyclin B (CycB)] and M/G1 [GFP-E2F Transcription Factor 1 (E2F1)] phases, respectively, indicates cell cycle progression within CVM cells over the course of their migration (Fig. 4A,B; Zielke et al., 2014; Macabenta et al., 2022). We observed that the GFP signal becomes fully apparent as CVM cells divide at stage 12, corresponding to the period when late genes are expressed (i.e. beat-IIa, Syn2 and CG5080).

Fig. 4.

Cell cycle progression influences expression dynamics of a subset of genes in the CVM, including CG5080. (A,B) Cell cycle progression shown by the Fly-FUCCI system (Zielke et al., 2014; Macabenta et al., 2022) in embryos when G447-GAL4 is used to drive CVM-specific reporter expression and antibodies are used to detect RFP and GFP signals. Anti-RFP indicates cells during S phase (red), anti-GFP shows cells at G1 phase (green), and merged signal (yellow) shows cells at G2 to M. (C) Anti-PH3 staining (light blue) indicates the cell division patterns in the CVM migrating cohort (stage 10-13) in wild-type and mutant embryos. Arrows indicate the dividing cells with nuclear PH3 signals, and HLH54F hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probe labeling CVM cells (magenta). Areas outlined are shown at higher magnification on the right. (D,E) CG5080 and Syn2 (green) colocalizing with HLH54F (magenta) by HCR in situ hybridization in wild-type and cell cycle-disrupted mutant embryos at stages 11-12. (F) Quantification of relative expression of Syn2 (D, green) in HLH54F-positive CVM cells (D, magenta) detected by HCR probes in control and mutant embryos. (G) Quantification of relative expression of CG5080 (E, green) in CVM cells at the front of the collective (E, magenta). Two-tailed one-way ANOVA with Dunnett's multiple comparisons test was performed (*P<0.05, ***P<0.001, ****P<0.0001). (H-J) Strong CG5080 expression (green) correlates with cell division (PH3, light blue) that takes place at the posterior turn of stage 12 embryos [arrows in H (wild type); quantified in I (265 cells, n=10 embryos); see Materials and Methods] or additionally at stage 13 in embryos overexpressing stg [arrows in J (G447>stg)]. (K) E2F1 consensus binding site matches within the CG5080 enhancer, supporting expression in CVM cells. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 4.

Cell cycle progression influences expression dynamics of a subset of genes in the CVM, including CG5080. (A,B) Cell cycle progression shown by the Fly-FUCCI system (Zielke et al., 2014; Macabenta et al., 2022) in embryos when G447-GAL4 is used to drive CVM-specific reporter expression and antibodies are used to detect RFP and GFP signals. Anti-RFP indicates cells during S phase (red), anti-GFP shows cells at G1 phase (green), and merged signal (yellow) shows cells at G2 to M. (C) Anti-PH3 staining (light blue) indicates the cell division patterns in the CVM migrating cohort (stage 10-13) in wild-type and mutant embryos. Arrows indicate the dividing cells with nuclear PH3 signals, and HLH54F hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probe labeling CVM cells (magenta). Areas outlined are shown at higher magnification on the right. (D,E) CG5080 and Syn2 (green) colocalizing with HLH54F (magenta) by HCR in situ hybridization in wild-type and cell cycle-disrupted mutant embryos at stages 11-12. (F) Quantification of relative expression of Syn2 (D, green) in HLH54F-positive CVM cells (D, magenta) detected by HCR probes in control and mutant embryos. (G) Quantification of relative expression of CG5080 (E, green) in CVM cells at the front of the collective (E, magenta). Two-tailed one-way ANOVA with Dunnett's multiple comparisons test was performed (*P<0.05, ***P<0.001, ****P<0.0001). (H-J) Strong CG5080 expression (green) correlates with cell division (PH3, light blue) that takes place at the posterior turn of stage 12 embryos [arrows in H (wild type); quantified in I (265 cells, n=10 embryos); see Materials and Methods] or additionally at stage 13 in embryos overexpressing stg [arrows in J (G447>stg)]. (K) E2F1 consensus binding site matches within the CG5080 enhancer, supporting expression in CVM cells. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

We therefore investigated whether late genes might be influenced by the cell cycle (compare Fig. 4A with Fig. 2C). Cell division within the CVM can be detected using the anti-phosphorylated Histone 3 (PH3) antibody, an indicator for cells in M-phase (Shibata et al., 1990), coupled with an antibody to Teyra-meyrha (Tey), a nuclear protein, to label CVM cells specifically (Stepanik et al., 2016). Normally migrating CVM cells divide at two locations: at the very back when cells just migrate out (stages 10-early 11), and at the posterior turn at stage 12 (Fig. 4C, wild-type stage 12, arrows). Expression of several late genes (Syn2 and CG5080) is delayed in stg mutants: they are absent up to stage 12 (Fig. 4D-G, stg4) and are expressed only later at stage 13 (Fig. S3F). Overexpression of string/Cdc25 within CVM cells using the Gal4/UAS system (Caygill and Brand, 2016) leads to increased or ectopic cell division in the CVM at stage 11 and before reaching the posterior turn at stage 12 (Fig. 4C, G447>stg, arrow; see also Fig. S3A). Consequently, this also leads to a slight increase in CG5080 expression at stages 11-12 (Fig. 4E,G, G447>stg; see Materials and Methods); in contrast, Syn2 expression does not change (Fig. 4D,F, G447>stg). This initiation of CG5080 expression in CVM cells correlates with the transitioning of the cell through M phase (marked by PH3 staining), both in wild type (Fig. 4H,I) and when stg is overexpressed in the CVM cells (Fig. 4J). CG5080 appears to be more sensitive to levels of stg and cell cycle progression than the other late genes.

As expression of hid also increases around stage 12, when CVM cells divide in an E2F1-dependent manner (Macabenta et al., 2022), we hypothesized that E2F1 might act as a general positive input to support the expression of other late genes, such as CG5080, in addition to hid. Scanning the identified enhancers, we found that matches to the E2F1-binding consensus are present within the late gene enhancers but absent from those of the early genes (Fig. S3B). In E2f1 mutants, a decrease in cell division is observed at stage 12 (Fig. 4C, E2f1) and, concomitantly, expression of CG5080 is significantly diminished in the migrating CVM cells (Fig. 4E,G, E2f1; also Fig. S3G). Little effect is observed on Syn2, beat-IIb and beat-IIa expression (Fig. 4D,E and Fig. S3D,E, E2f1). E2f family TFs constitute one of several regulators of cell cycle-dependent transcription, each of which is controlled by specific cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) that regulate discrete gene expression programs (Zhang et al., 2021). Furthermore, the CG5080 enhancer has three matches to the E2F1 consensus binding motif (Fig. 4K), which possibly explains why this gene is more dependent/sensitive to levels of this one particular factor and cell cycle state. The late genes might have different dependencies on specific TFs to modulate cell cycle-dependent expression or otherwise control their expression from stage 11 onwards (see Discussion).

Regulation of early gene expression spatial extent by TFs Zfh1, Sna and Doc2

Although cell cycle progression/E2F1 impacts late gene expression, it is not required to support early gene expression (e.g. Doc2; Fig. S3C). To provide additional insight into the regulation of early gene expression in the CVM, we focused on the TFs that are expressed either continuously (zfh1) or early (sna and Doc2). These genes are associated with CVM cells from stages 10 to 12. In particular, we were interested in understanding how these TFs might control polarized gene expression within the migrating collective, as zfh1 and sna are ubiquitously expressed, whereas Doc2 is localized to the anterior end of the migrating collective (Figs 1B and 2B).

To assay mutant phenotypes for zfh1 and Doc, we used available mutants, while assaying of sna loss-of-function in the CVM required generation of a novel mutant. A null mutant is available for zfh1, as is a deficiency mutant, DocA, that removes Doc2 as well as paralogs Doc1 and Doc3; both mutants have been previously characterized (Lai et al., 1993; Reim et al., 2003). The ∼1.8 kB snaDistal enhancer is required to support the expression of sna in the Malpighian tubules/CVM (Dunipace et al., 2011). Mutants with a deletion of this snaDistal enhancer segment (snaΔD1.8) are viable and exhibit relatively normal gastrulation (Irizarry et al., 2021 preprint). Importantly, CVM cells are specified, although fewer relative to wild type, and sna expression is missing at stage 10/11 (Fig. 5G, compare with Fig. 5A).

Fig. 5.

Phenotypes associated with mutants for TFs expressed early in development: snail, zfh1, Doc1, Doc2 and Doc3. (A-I) CVM cells are labeled with HLH54F probes in magenta; expression of sna, zfh1 and Doc2 are detected with hybridization chain reaction probes in green. (A,B,G,H) Deletion of the sna distal enhancer results in a loss of sna expression in the CVM cells (G) that is normally observed at stage 10 and restricted to the very posterior cells at stage 11 (A). Loss of zfh1 leads to an increased sna expression that persists to stage 11 (arrows, B; slightly older stage than A). (C,I) zfh1 expression is unaffected by loss of sna or Doc genes; see Fig. 1B for control. (D-F) Both zfh1 and sna are required for maintaining the expression of Doc2 in the migrating CVM cells. Magnified views of the outlined area are shown on the right. (J) Diagram showing the regulatory relationship between sna, zfh1 and Doc genes (Doc1, Doc2 and/or Doc3). (K-M) Quantification of Doc2 expression in the CVM cells (D-F, stage 11 early) as measured by its fluorescence intensity profile from the anterior (0%) to posterior (100%) of the migrating collective. Profile of HLH54F is also shown to locate CVM cells (see Materials and Methods). n=3, shaded area showing error bar calculated with standard deviation. Yellow color highlights the region of co-expression of Doc2 (green) and HLH54F (magenta) in the CVM cells. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 5.

Phenotypes associated with mutants for TFs expressed early in development: snail, zfh1, Doc1, Doc2 and Doc3. (A-I) CVM cells are labeled with HLH54F probes in magenta; expression of sna, zfh1 and Doc2 are detected with hybridization chain reaction probes in green. (A,B,G,H) Deletion of the sna distal enhancer results in a loss of sna expression in the CVM cells (G) that is normally observed at stage 10 and restricted to the very posterior cells at stage 11 (A). Loss of zfh1 leads to an increased sna expression that persists to stage 11 (arrows, B; slightly older stage than A). (C,I) zfh1 expression is unaffected by loss of sna or Doc genes; see Fig. 1B for control. (D-F) Both zfh1 and sna are required for maintaining the expression of Doc2 in the migrating CVM cells. Magnified views of the outlined area are shown on the right. (J) Diagram showing the regulatory relationship between sna, zfh1 and Doc genes (Doc1, Doc2 and/or Doc3). (K-M) Quantification of Doc2 expression in the CVM cells (D-F, stage 11 early) as measured by its fluorescence intensity profile from the anterior (0%) to posterior (100%) of the migrating collective. Profile of HLH54F is also shown to locate CVM cells (see Materials and Methods). n=3, shaded area showing error bar calculated with standard deviation. Yellow color highlights the region of co-expression of Doc2 (green) and HLH54F (magenta) in the CVM cells. Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Using these mutants for zfh1, Doc and sna (i.e. zfh12, DocA and snaΔD1.8), we sought to determine the relationships between these factors in the context of transcriptional regulation in migrating CVM cells. sna expression persists longer in zfh1 mutants as cells initiate migration but remains relatively unchanged in the DocA mutant background (Fig. 5A,B,H). zfh1 expression is unaffected in either mutant (Fig. 5C,I), whereas Doc2 expression is reduced in both sna and zfh1 mutant backgrounds, albeit in different ways (Fig. 5D-F). Using a quantitative analysis to assay gene expression throughout the migrating collective (see Materials and Methods), we find that the average Doc2 expression is enriched to the anterior ∼60% of the migrating CVM cell collective, as indicated by the overlap with HLH54F signals (Fig. 5D,K). In the snaΔD1.8 mutant, Doc2 expression is decreased, apparent only in ∼10% of cells at the front (Fig. 5E,L). Loss of zfh1 also causes Doc2 expression to decrease in both levels and fraction of cells: reduced Doc2 expression is present in the approximately anterior 20% of the cells (Fig. 5F,M). These results suggest a gene regulatory program in which Zfh1 represses sna, and both Zfh1 and Sna act to promote the expression of Doc2 (Fig. 5J).

As Zfh1, Snail and Doc2 TFs are expressed early during CVM cell migration, we investigated whether they influence late gene expression perhaps by using a feed-forward mechanism. However, expression dynamics of late genes (i.e. beat-IIa, Syn2 and CG5080) appear largely normal in zfh12, snaΔD1.8 and DocA mutants with transcripts present in the CVM from late stage 11 onwards, as found in the wild type (Fig. S4).

zfh1, sna and Doc genes regulate spatially localized early gene expression within migrating CVM cell collectives

In a previous study, we found that genes kon and Grip are expressed at the front and back of the migrating collective, respectively (Fig. 6A,A′,C,C′; Sun et al., 2023). Using our quantitative method for analysis of polarized expression (see Materials and Methods), kon transcript is detected at the anterior of the migrating collective in a domain representing ∼60% of cells at early stage 11 (yellow, Fig. 6E), similar to the domain encompassed by Doc2 (Fig. 5K). In contrast, Grip transcript is detected at the posterior in a domain representing ∼60% of cells located at the back of the migrating collective (green shaded area, Fig. 6G) and becomes further restricted to the posteriormost ∼40% of cells by late stage 11 (green shaded area, Fig. S6D). Although the HCR probes used are incompatible for detecting colocalization, these results suggest the expression of kon and Grip gradually become non-overlapping during stage 11.

Fig. 6.

sna, zfh1 and DocA mutants exhibit defects in polarized gene expression within the migrating CVM cell collective but have limited effects on timing of gene expression. (A-D) kon (A,A′,B) and Grip (C,C′,D) expression in the CVM cells (labeled by HLH54F), as detected by hybridization chain reaction in situ hybridization in wild-type, snaΔD1.8, zfh12 and DocA mutant backgrounds. A′ and C′ show individual kon and Grip localizations to the front or back of the migrating collective, respectively. (E-H) Quantification of transcript levels shown as fluorescence intensity measured from posterior (0%) to anterior (100%) in the migrating collective shown in wild type versus kon mutant. Yellow and green shaded areas indicate overlap between kon and HLH54F (E,F) or Grip and HLH54F (G,H) signals, respectively; gray shading indicates low to no expression (see Materials and Methods). kon expression in all mutants is expanded (B, also quantified in F for the zfh12 mutant), whereas Grip enrichment in the posterior domain is only affected in zfh12 and DocA mutants (D,H); see also Fig. S5. (I) CVM migration assayed using anti-GFP antibody staining in wild-type, zfh12 and DocA mutant backgrounds carrying the V2 transgene (HLH54F.v2-venus) or with HLH54F riboprobe and in situ hybridization in snaΔD1.8 mutant. Arrow indicates specific CVM cells in the zfh12 mutant that mismigrate, moving ventrally instead of anteriorly, whereas CVM migration in DocA mutants is severely and generally disrupted. At stage 13, asterisks indicate the boundary between the first and second thoracic segments (i.e. T1/T2 boundary), which is the normal anterior-most position that CVM cells migrate to (Urbano et al., 2011). Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 6.

sna, zfh1 and DocA mutants exhibit defects in polarized gene expression within the migrating CVM cell collective but have limited effects on timing of gene expression. (A-D) kon (A,A′,B) and Grip (C,C′,D) expression in the CVM cells (labeled by HLH54F), as detected by hybridization chain reaction in situ hybridization in wild-type, snaΔD1.8, zfh12 and DocA mutant backgrounds. A′ and C′ show individual kon and Grip localizations to the front or back of the migrating collective, respectively. (E-H) Quantification of transcript levels shown as fluorescence intensity measured from posterior (0%) to anterior (100%) in the migrating collective shown in wild type versus kon mutant. Yellow and green shaded areas indicate overlap between kon and HLH54F (E,F) or Grip and HLH54F (G,H) signals, respectively; gray shading indicates low to no expression (see Materials and Methods). kon expression in all mutants is expanded (B, also quantified in F for the zfh12 mutant), whereas Grip enrichment in the posterior domain is only affected in zfh12 and DocA mutants (D,H); see also Fig. S5. (I) CVM migration assayed using anti-GFP antibody staining in wild-type, zfh12 and DocA mutant backgrounds carrying the V2 transgene (HLH54F.v2-venus) or with HLH54F riboprobe and in situ hybridization in snaΔD1.8 mutant. Arrow indicates specific CVM cells in the zfh12 mutant that mismigrate, moving ventrally instead of anteriorly, whereas CVM migration in DocA mutants is severely and generally disrupted. At stage 13, asterisks indicate the boundary between the first and second thoracic segments (i.e. T1/T2 boundary), which is the normal anterior-most position that CVM cells migrate to (Urbano et al., 2011). Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

As Doc2 transcripts specifically are localized to the anterior (not sna or zfh1), we hypothesized that Doc2 regulates the localized expression of other early genes, i.e. kon and Grip. In wild-type embryos, Grip and kon are expressed early in distinct domains, as the CVM cells initiate migration until late stage 11 before cells divide (Fig. 6A,A′,C,C′; Sun et al., 2023). In DocA mutants, we found that kon and Grip are no longer differentially localized but are instead broadly expressed in all CVM cells (Fig. 6B,D, DocA; Fig. S5C,D), supporting the view that Doc2 acts upstream of kon and Grip, and is necessary to promote their spatially localized expression patterns.

As snaΔD1.8 and zfh1 mutants exhibit decreased Doc2 expression (Fig. 5E,F,L,M), we expected to see effects on localization of kon and Grip similar to those in DocA mutants. Both snaΔD1.8 and zfh12 mutants fail to localize kon to the front, with transcripts instead detected in all CVM cells (Fig. 6B, snaΔD1.8 and zfh12; Fig. 6E and Fig. S5A). Surprisingly, different effects were observed for Grip. Although Grip expression in the zfh12 mutant is uniform (Fig. 6H zfh12), its localization at the back in the snaΔD1.8 mutant is similar to that in the wild type (Fig. S5B). Collectively, these results suggest that Doc, Sna and Zfh1 contribute to anterior localization of kon, but that only Doc and Zfh1 (not Sna) are required to support localization of Grip to the back.

We postulate that the level of polarity retained within the migrating collective may relate to the range of cell migration defects associated with the mutants examined (Fig. 6I). CVM cells in the DocA mutants exhibit no polarity (i.e. overlapping kon and Grip) and are bunched together. As the ectoderm patterning is also affected, their phenotype is difficult to interpret. Comparing zfh12 to snaΔD1.8 mutants, we found that CVM cells in zfh12 mutants completely lose their polarity (i.e. Grip also failed to localize to the back), veer off-track, divide ectopically and never reach the anterior midgut (Fig. 6I, arrow; zfh12). Therefore, Zfh1 may play a more important role in regulating the invasive behavior of CVM cells compared with sna (see Discussion).

Transition from early to late gene expression is facilitated by cell division

As we had identified cell division as a pivotal regulator of late gene expression, we next investigated whether precocious cell division affects spatially localized expression of the early genes within the migrating collective. To provide insight, we examined kon, Grip and Doc2 expression in stg mutants (stg4) or upon stg ectopic expression (G447>stg) at late stage 11. Assaying gene expression polarization in the migrating collective slightly later will ensure that the drivers of ectopic expression (G447-GAL4) are given adequate time to induce cell division. In stg mutants, despite the block to the cell cycle, kon remains localized to the front and Grip to the back, suggesting that proper spatially localized gene expression is maintained; a similar result is observed upon stg ectopic expression (G447>stg) (Fig. 7A,B and Fig. S6). Therefore, modulating when cell division occurs during CVM migration does not affect the polarized expression of early genes, and polarity is retained even when fewer cells are present in the migrating collective.

Fig. 7.

Disrupting cell cycle progression has little effect on polarized gene expression but cell cycle progression and loss of Doc genes accelerate CG5080 expression. (A,C) Expression of kon (green, A) or Doc2 (green, C) in CVM cells (HLH54F, magenta) detected by in situ hybridization with hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probes in wild-type and cell cycle mutants: stg mutant (lacks cell division) or ectopic expression of stg (i.e. G447>stg; supporting extra cell division). (B) Quantification of kon localization in the CVM (stage 11 late, shown in A) as measured by its fluorescence intensity profile from anterior (0%) to posterior (100%) along with HLH54F (see Materials and Methods). Yellow shaded areas indicate overlap between kon and HLH54F, whereas gray shading indicates low to no expression. (D) HCR in situ hybridization showing overexpression of stg (5053>stg) speeds up the transition from Doc2 (green) to CG5080 (red, D′) expression in CVM cells (magenta). The outlined areas are shown at higher magnification in the lower panels. Arrows indicate cells in which Doc2 expression is low but CG5080 is high. (E) Quantification of D indicates that Doc2 and CG5080 show opposite trends over time; the switch is earlier upon ectopic expression of stg (5053>stg). Two-tailed two-way ANOVA test was performed with corrections for multiple comparisons using statistical hypothesis testing. For CG5080-Front, n=8, 8, 8 and 6 (at stage 11 early, stage 11 late, stage 12 and stage 13, respectively, in wild type); n=6, 8, 6 and 5 (in 5053>stg). For Doc2, n=8, 8, 5 and 6 (in wild type); n=6, 6, 5 and 5 (in 5053>stg). *P<0.05; ***P<0.001. Individual data points are provided when n<5. (F,G,) CG5080 levels are decreased relative to wild type when continuing expression of Doc2 in the CVM is forced by 5053-GAL4 (F) and quantification measuring the difference (two-tailed unpaired t-test, P<0.0001, G). (H,I) In the DocA mutant, CG5080 is not expressed at stage 11; however, when stg is ectopically expressed in the CVM of DocA mutants using a HLH54F.v-GAL4 driver, then CG5080 expression is initiated early throughout the CVM (two-tailed unpaired t-test, ****P<0.0001, I). Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Fig. 7.

Disrupting cell cycle progression has little effect on polarized gene expression but cell cycle progression and loss of Doc genes accelerate CG5080 expression. (A,C) Expression of kon (green, A) or Doc2 (green, C) in CVM cells (HLH54F, magenta) detected by in situ hybridization with hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probes in wild-type and cell cycle mutants: stg mutant (lacks cell division) or ectopic expression of stg (i.e. G447>stg; supporting extra cell division). (B) Quantification of kon localization in the CVM (stage 11 late, shown in A) as measured by its fluorescence intensity profile from anterior (0%) to posterior (100%) along with HLH54F (see Materials and Methods). Yellow shaded areas indicate overlap between kon and HLH54F, whereas gray shading indicates low to no expression. (D) HCR in situ hybridization showing overexpression of stg (5053>stg) speeds up the transition from Doc2 (green) to CG5080 (red, D′) expression in CVM cells (magenta). The outlined areas are shown at higher magnification in the lower panels. Arrows indicate cells in which Doc2 expression is low but CG5080 is high. (E) Quantification of D indicates that Doc2 and CG5080 show opposite trends over time; the switch is earlier upon ectopic expression of stg (5053>stg). Two-tailed two-way ANOVA test was performed with corrections for multiple comparisons using statistical hypothesis testing. For CG5080-Front, n=8, 8, 8 and 6 (at stage 11 early, stage 11 late, stage 12 and stage 13, respectively, in wild type); n=6, 8, 6 and 5 (in 5053>stg). For Doc2, n=8, 8, 5 and 6 (in wild type); n=6, 6, 5 and 5 (in 5053>stg). *P<0.05; ***P<0.001. Individual data points are provided when n<5. (F,G,) CG5080 levels are decreased relative to wild type when continuing expression of Doc2 in the CVM is forced by 5053-GAL4 (F) and quantification measuring the difference (two-tailed unpaired t-test, P<0.0001, G). (H,I) In the DocA mutant, CG5080 is not expressed at stage 11; however, when stg is ectopically expressed in the CVM of DocA mutants using a HLH54F.v-GAL4 driver, then CG5080 expression is initiated early throughout the CVM (two-tailed unpaired t-test, ****P<0.0001, I). Anterior to the left and dorsal upwards. Scale bars: 50 μm.

Alternatively, as Doc2 expression is normally lost by stage 12, we hypothesized that the cell cycle might influence when early genes are extinguished by shutting off Doc2. We assayed Doc2 expression in stg mutants or upon stg overexpression (5053>stg), noting that 5053-GAL4 and G447-GAL4 drivers are roughly equivalent, whereas HLH54F.v-GAL4 acts both earlier and stronger in terms of driving expression in CVM cells (see Materials and Methods, also Fig. 1D). Indeed, we found that Doc2 remains expressed for longer, extending into stage 13, in stg mutants (Fig. 7C, compare stg with wild type). Furthermore, levels of Doc2 appear lower upon stg overexpression compared with wild-type embryos at stage 12 (Fig. 7C,E, 5053>stg). These results support the view that cell division is likely one of several cues that facilitate the transition of CVM gene expression programs from one state to the next (i.e. early to late gene program) and may act by regulating Doc gene expression.

To determine whether the early and late gene expression programs are mutually exclusive and coordinated by cell division, we selected one gene from each program that appears to be sensitive to the manipulation of the cell cycle: Doc2 (early) and CG5080 (late). First we investigated whether these genes are ever co-expressed in the CVM cell during the transitioning period, finding co-expression is limited to stage 11 late and stage 12 (Fig. 7E, CG5080-Doc2). Doc2 trends down with time, as CG5080 increases. These opposite trends support the idea that these two programs (i.e. early versus late gene expression in the CVM) are coupled. Furthermore, when we introduce ectopic cell division in the CVM, the transition between loss of Doc2 and gain of CG5080 occurs earlier (Fig. 7E). Upon overexpression of stg, the early gene Doc2 is downregulated in the CVM cells and is extinguished before stage 12 (Fig. 7D,E, Doc2), and the cells that lose Doc2 are positive for CG5080 (Fig. 7D,D′, arrows indicate cells that express CG5080 but not Doc2).

Doc2 appears to repress the late gene expression program. When continuous Doc2 expression is forced using 5053-GAL4, CG5080 is repressed with minimal levels detected in the CVM (Fig. 7F,G). However, loss of Doc function alone does not lead to a precocious activation of the late genes, suggesting loss of this repressor is not enough to support earlier gene activation (Fig. S4, DocA). We also found that although overexpression of stg leads to increased expression of CG5080 it cannot support earlier expression (Fig. 7E, CG5080). We hypothesized that two requirements must be met to promote late gene expression, as elimination of Doc2-mediated repression is permissive whereas cell division is the accelerator. In either wild-type or DocA mutant background, robust CG5080 is not detected until stage 12 (Fig. S4 and Fig. 7E). However, when stg is overexpressed in the DocA mutant background using HLH54F.v-GAL4, strong CG5080 expression is observed in CVM cells at early stage 11 (Fig. 7H,I). Therefore, both cell cycle progression and loss of Doc2 expression are required to activate the late gene expression, and our results support the view that two mutually exclusive gene expression programs connected by cell division act sequentially to control the behavior of CVM cells during migration.

Unlike other forms of collective migration that rely on relatively stable contact and adhesion between neighboring cells, during the first half of their migration CVM cells have more transient dynamic interactions with their neighbors, likening the process to cell streaming; this changes during the second phase of migration subsequent to cell division, when CVM cells form more stable intercellular interactions with each other and with the substrate, all the while continuing forward migration. Collectively, our results demonstrate that the early-expressing TFs Zfh1, Sna and Doc play crucial roles in regulating spatially localized gene expression in actively migrating CVM cells, and the polarized expression of these factors might promote directed cell migration. In particular, we suggest that Zfh1 acts to regulate an invasive gene expression program during the first half of CVM cell migration. Zfh1 acts as a repressor, and in zfh1 mutant embryos CVM cells appear to be highly protrusive and branched (Fig. 6I, zfh1). Conversely, in addition to supporting spatially localized expression in CVM cells at an early timepoint, Doc2 acts to repress late genes such as CG5080. As the early genes control the migratory behaviors of the CVM cells, we suggest that late genes such as CG5080, an uncharacterized gene with homology to vertebrate laminin β subunit 1 (LAMB1), might be involved in the determination of visceral muscle cell fate. It is possible that the programs driving early vs late gene expression are mutually exclusive and perform different activities that can be explored in future studies.

In addition, our data suggest cell division acts to delineate the early spatially localized gene expression program from the late one (Fig. 8A), allowing a reset of the transcription state to facilitate changes in cell behavior, e.g. cell attachment or invasion (Fig. 8B). Such a role for cell division has been identified for other migrating cell types; for example, in C. elegans, anchor cell division is associated with a change in epigenetic cell state (Matus et al., 2015). Chicken cranial neural crest cells maintain mitotic quiescence during the early phase of their migration until invading the branchial arches, where they differentiate into a variety of cell types (Ridenour et al., 2014).

Fig. 8.

Schematic summarizing spatial and temporal gene expression programs in migratory CVM cells demarcated by cell division and possible additional factors. (A) Schematic showing the course of HLH54F-expressing CVM cell migration. (B) Spatial program schematics illustrating polarized localization of CVM genes before cell division (stage 11) and uniform distribution after cell division (stage 13). (C) Schematic illustrating dynamic and temporally restricted expression of genes before and after cell division, which normally takes place at stage 12. Temporally restricted CG5080 expression is established by a combination of positive regulation by cell division and repression by Doc2.

Fig. 8.

Schematic summarizing spatial and temporal gene expression programs in migratory CVM cells demarcated by cell division and possible additional factors. (A) Schematic showing the course of HLH54F-expressing CVM cell migration. (B) Spatial program schematics illustrating polarized localization of CVM genes before cell division (stage 11) and uniform distribution after cell division (stage 13). (C) Schematic illustrating dynamic and temporally restricted expression of genes before and after cell division, which normally takes place at stage 12. Temporally restricted CG5080 expression is established by a combination of positive regulation by cell division and repression by Doc2.

Our finding that E2f-binding motifs are represented in many of the late CVM enhancers identified is consistent with previously published research describing how the E2F family of transcriptional regulators can also be repurposed for roles outside a cell cycle context in post-mitotic cells, including controlling myogenic differentiation (Zappia and Frolov, 2016). In adult Drosophila skeletal muscle cells, knockdown of the E2F co-factor DP TF (Dp) did not result in defects in cell proliferation and myoblast fusion, but presented defects in muscle growth; indeed, the expression of structural genes, including Myosin heavy chain (Mhc) and Tropomyosin 1 (Tm1), and regulators such as held out wings (how) and Mef2 was found to be reduced in Dp-depleted skeletal muscle tissues (Zappia and Frolov, 2016). Most notably, cell cycle regulators such as E2F1, Dp and Retinoblastoma family protein (Rbf) were found to be highly enriched in promoters for the myogenic loci, even before the activation of the genes themselves, suggesting that these regulators are necessary for expression of these genes, but are not sufficient for activation. Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that TFs such as E2F1, which are most well-known for their role in cell cycle regulation, can also cooperate with other tissue-specific TFs to control gene expression, including those required for terminal differentiation. There is an intriguing possibility that this is a conserved mode of gene regulation, as mammalian E2f3 has been shown to directly regulate myogenic differentiation outside an apparent cell cycle function (Asp et al., 2009).

Balancing proliferation and motility is key to cell migration, and how proliferation contributes to the process depends on the cell type as well as the mode of migration, i.e. single cell versus collective. Although it could be crucial for maintaining the primordium size and generating polarity or cellular diversity within the migrating collective, cell division and migratory/invasive behavior are at times incompatible. For example, differentiation follows an invasive cell state and takes place only after mitosis in the worm anchor cell; highly invasive metastatic cancer cells tend to be less proliferative (Hoek et al., 2008; Gil-Henn et al., 2013; Matus et al., 2015). At least in part, this incompatibility can be explained by the distinctive cytoskeletal organization required by these two processes. Migrating cells are protrusive, with polarized branched F-actin driven by Rac and Cdc42 activities, while dividing cells become rounded during mitosis with symmetric distribution of F-actin (Dogterom and Koenderink, 2019). Furthermore, cell division, in particular G1/S progression, has been linked to cell fate decisions and can facilitate transitions between cellular states associated with different transcription signatures (Soufi and Dalton, 2016). A recent study of melanoma cells showed that an intermediate state, associated with a stable GRN enriched for epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) genes, exists in addition to two main switchable transcriptional states/cell behaviors: a melanocytic differentiated state (MEL) and mesenchymal invasive-like state (MES) (Wouters et al., 2020). Interestingly, when the switching of these cells from MEL to MES is induced in culture, the disruption of cell cycle progression (G1 arrest) precedes activation of gene programs involved in cell migration or EMT.

Our study has identified two transcription programs, and a requirement for cell division in turning off the early program and activating the late program. The transition point from a migratory/invasive program to a differentiation/attachment program is not simply defined by shutting off one single early expressing gene; instead, multiple factors, including cell cycle regulators, are involved in progressing this transcriptional state change. During normal development, the two programs might be irreversible such that once CVM cells divide they are unable to go back to an invasive state. Understanding how cell migration programs coordinate with cell cycle progression, support invasive cell behavior, as well as ultimately promote cell differentiation has broad implications in both biology and medicine.

Fly stocks and husbandry

All stocks were kept at 22°C in standard medium. Experimental crosses were kept in cages with apple juice agar plates supplemented with yeast paste. The following stocks are obtained from the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center (BDSC): Fly-FUCCI (BDSC55110, w1118;P{w[+mC]=UASp-GFP.E2f1.1-230}26 P{w[+mC]=UASp-mRFP1.NLS.CycB.1-266}4/CyO, P{ry[+t7.2]=en1}wg[en11]; MKRS/TM6B,Tb1), E2f1 [BDSC7274 E2f1i2/TM3,Sb1 crossed into BDSC3013 Df(3R)e-BS2,rsd1/TM3,Sb1], stg [BDSC2500 ru1hry1Diap1th-1st1cu1sr1esstg4ca1/TM3,Sb1Ser1 or BDSC44368 y1w*;Mi{MIC}stgMI08204/TM3,Sb1Ser1 crossed into BDSC25004 w1118;Df(3R)BSC500/TM6C,Sb1cu1], zfh1 (BDSC90314 zfh12/TM3,Sb1Ser1), DocA (BDSC91634 Df(3L)DocA,ru1P{EP}smgEP3556/TM3,P{eve-lacZ8.0}AG1,Sb1), CG5953 [BDSC13223 y1w67c23;P{lacW}CG5953k16215/CyO crossed into BDSC7833 w1118;Df(2L)Exel7066/CyO], UAS-stg (BDSC4778 w1118;P{UAS-stg.N}4) and 5053-GAL4 (BDSC2702 w*;P{GawB}tey5053A/TM6B,Tb+). HLH54F-Gap-Venus (V2) (Stepanik et al., 2016), G447-GAL4 (Georgias et al., 1997) and snaΔD1.8 (Irizarry et al., 2021 preprint) have been previously described. yw is used to show the wild-type expression pattern; control refers to heterozygous E2f1 mutant embryos from the same collections.

Cloning of reporter constructs and generation of transgenic fly lines

Predictions for CVM-specific enhancer elements were generated using 6-8 h ChIP-ChIP data for Zfh1 (Wu et al., 2019), Bin (Zinzen et al., 2009), Mef2 (Zinzen et al., 2009) and Doc2 (Junion et al., 2012). Priority was given to regions that showed occupancy by both Bin and Mef2 while excluding Twi (Zinzen et al., 2009). Primers were generated to amplify candidate enhancers via PCR using CloneAmp HiFi PCR Premix (TaKaRa Bio) and enhancer reporter constructs were assembled by cloning amplified fragments via the pENTR/D-TOPO Gateway cloning system (Life Technologies) into pBPGUw with a Drosophila synthetic core promoter and Gal4 reporter (Addgene 17575; Pfeiffer et al., 2008) using LR Clonase II (Life Technologies) or In-Fusion cloning (TaKaRa Bio) into an evep.LacZ plasmid with a heterologous minimal promoter from the even-skipped gene and lacZ reporter (Liberman and Stathopoulos, 2009). As both reporter vectors contain attB, all transgenic flies were generated using site-directed transgenesis using the line M{vas-int.Dm}ZH-2A, M{3xP3-RFP.attP′}ZH-51C (BDSC24482) by Rainbow Transgenics (Camarillo, CA, USA).

Fixation, in situ hybridization and immunostaining

Embryos were fixed in 4% formaldehyde/PBST following the standard protocol for in situ hybridization. Riboprobes for GAL4 and HLH54F were made by amplifying a ∼1.5 kb and 400 bp region from a genomic DNA sample extracted from G447-GAL4 flies, with the reverse primers containing a T7 promoter sequence to facilitate reverse transcription with T7 polymerase (Roche, 13644022). Primers used for amplification are: GAL4_forward, ccagggatgctcttcatggattt; GAL4_reverse, ctccggaagagtagggtattg; HLH54F_forward, gagttccaccagagtagccg; HLH54F_reverse, aggcttgcacatacggaaac. The antisense RNA probes labeled with digoxiygenin (Roche, 57127420) and Biotin (Roche, 55612420) were used in combination with primary antibodies (1:400) of different origin (sheep anti-digoxigenin polyclonal antibody; Thermo Fisher, PA1-85378; RRID: AB_930545 and mouse anti-biotin, Thermo Fisher, 03-3700; RRID: AB_2532265) to detect the in vivo expression of target genes. Alexa Fluor (555 and 647, respectively) secondary antibodies (1:500; Molecular Probes, A-21436 and A-31571; RRID: AB_162542) were used for fluorescent signal amplification and detection.

A standard protocol was also used for antibody staining of embryos. Dilutions for primary antibodies used were as follows: chicken anti-GFP (1:1000; this work, validated by the presence of CVM-specific GFP signal in embryos carrying the V2 transgene), rabbit anti-RFP (1:400, MBL International, PM005; RRID: AB_591279), rabbit anti-Tey (1:400; Macabenta and Stathopoulos, 2019), mouse anti-PH3 (1:800; EMD Millipore, 06-570; RRID:AB_310177) and rabbit anti-Zfh1 (1:1000, a gift from Ruth Lehmann, MIT, Cambridge MA, USA). A dilution factor of 1:500 was used for the following secondary antibodies: Alexa Fluor 555 goat anti-chicken (Thermo Fisher, A-21437; RRID:AB_2535858), 488 donkey anti-rabbit (Molecular Probes, A-31573; RRID: AB_2536183) and 647 donkey anti-mouse (Molecular Probes, A-31571; RRID: AB_162542).

Hybridization chain reaction RNA-fluorescence in situ hybridization

Hybridization chain reaction (HCR) RNA-fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) (Choi et al., 2018) was performed as described previously (Slaidina et al., 2021) with modifications to use Xylene for tissue clearing instead of 0.1% Triton X-100. HCR probes used for genes eGFP (order number/lot number: d21260aa-84e9-4ae2-9adf-109eef0e85eb/PRH935), lacZ (d5cdac09-6920-42eb-b229-b5d2421b995c/RTB830), zfh1 (e6769188-c0db-4581-a929-39afc204d0d0/PRR866), sna (4614/E928), HLH54F (4358/E576), Doc2 (5c204473-08ca-4546-bf24-1925b8003083/PRO669), kon (4049/E192), CG5080 (5c204473-08ca-4546-bf24-1925b8003083/PRO668), beat-IIa (5c204473-08ca-4546-bf24-1925b8003083/PRO670), beat-IIb (5c204473-08ca-4546-bf24-1925b8003083/PRO671), Syn2 (5c204473-08ca-4546-bf24-1925b8003083/PRO667), Grip (9d28cc4d-0e82-4330-9564-96b40a58248c/RTB563) and CG5953 (5fa8f306-142e-4909-8555-3a57ae81b8a5/RTF900) were designed and synthesized by Molecular Instruments.

Enhancer sequence analyses

De novo motif discovery was performed using XSTREME (Grant and Bailey, 2021 preprint). Enhancer sequences were manually inputted in bulk, with combined Drosophila databases of known motifs for analysis and discovery. Motif search was limited to results with E-value ≤0.05, with minimum and maximum widths of 6 bp and 15 bp, respectively. Given the set of inputted primary sequences, the E-value is defined as the probability of a motif being found that would discriminate the primary sequences from the XSTREME-generated control sequences at least as well, assuming a background order (m) value of 2 (default for XSTREME). Motifs were centrally aligned for site positional diagrams, with STREME and FIMO instructed to parse genomic coordinates; under MEME settings, the predicted occurrence for each motif was set to zero or one occurrence per sequence. Block diagrams were generated using MAST (Bailey and Gribskov, 1998) by manually inputting de novo motifs (see Table S1) and the 10 enhancer sequences (deposited in GenBank under accession numbers OR364904-OR364913). E-value threshold was set to less than or equal to 10; this is defined as the expected number of sequences in a random sequence file of the same size that would match the motif as well as the sequence does. E2f1 consensus binding sites were manually identified using published E2f1-binding motifs TTGGCGCGCATTTT (Drosophila biphasic motif) and TTTGGCGC (Drosophila E2f motif) (Georlette et al., 2007).

Pseudotime analysis of scRNA-seq dataset

The single-cell gene expression dataset was generated in the context of a previous study (Sun et al., 2023). Pseudotime trajectory analysis for cluster 10 cells was performed using Monocle2 (Trapnell et al., 2014; Qiu et al., 2017). Pseudotime values of individual cells were projected onto a UMAP plot for visualization.

Quantification of Syn2, CG5080 and Doc2 expression within the CVM

To assess the changes of gene expression in the CVM, we used the Squassh (segmentation and quantification of subcellular shapes) plug-in (Rizk et al., 2014) in Fiji (Schindelin et al., 2012) to quantify the fluorescent signal colocalization. Briefly, a z-stack of approximately 150 μm (10 slices) with the region of interest (ROI) focused on either the entire CVM population or the migrating CVM cells at the front were subjected to Squassh segmentation tool under the MOSAIC suite. Segmentation parameters were set as follows: standard deviation for xy 0.33 and z 0.79; minimum object intensity to identify CVM cells based on HLH54F expression 0.1; minimum object intensity for CG5080, Syn2 and Doc2 expression 0.075. Cell masking threshold for HLH54F was set to 0.15; for CG5080, Syn2 and Doc2, it was set to 0.1. Size of expression domains for each gene within the ROI was calculated. Overlapping expression regions of two genes (CG5080/HLH54F, Syn2/HLH54F, Doc2/HLH54F and Doc2/CG5080) above their thresholds were also identified. The relative size of co-expression domains was calculated as percentage of the HLH54F- or CG5080-positive regions within the ROI. Statistical analysis was performed in GraphPad Prism using analysis of variance (ANOVA) for comparisons between multiple groups (genotypes or stages) and unpaired t-test for comparisons between two groups.

Quantification of PH3 and CG5080 expressing CVM cells

To demonstrate cell division correlating with the expression of CG5080, projections of z-stacks from 10 wild-type stage 12 embryos co-stained for HLH54F and CG5080 HCR probes, and using an antibody against mitotic marker PH3 were used for quantification. Regions containing CVM cells at the posterior turn were selected as the ROI. The number of CG5080 and HLH54F double-positive, PH3 and HLH54F double-positive as well as CG5080, PH3 and HLH54F triple-positive cells were counted and calculated as ratios relative to HLH54F-positive cells within the ROI.

Quantification of spatial expression domains in the CVM

To more systematically assay changes in gene expression localization throughout the migrating collectives, we devised a quantitative approach by recording the fluorescence intensity along a straight line drawn to represent the long axis of a single migrating collective – here assayed at stage 11 early for the gene Doc2 simultaneously with HLH54F. Confocal fluorescent images were taken as z-stacks using a Zeiss LSM 800 and output as orthogonal projections. Fluorescence intensity measurement was carried out with Fuji with the ‘Multichannel Plot Profile’ function from BAR (Broad Applicable Routines) plug-in (https://zenodo.org/records/28838). A straight line was drawn along the long axis of the CVM cells to cover as many as target cells while also avoiding signals in surrounding tissues. For each genotype at a specific stage, measurements from three embryos were taken and data was output in a table format as x-axis represents the percentage of distance from the migration start point and y-axis records the relative fluorescent signal intensity. Each table was then subjected to a Matlab script for interpolation (deposited under Stathopoulos lab GitHub account, https://github.com/StathopoulosLab/intensity_interp_stats) so that an average of fluorescent intensity (y) at any given x value (0-100%) can be calculated for each genotype. Error bar represents standard deviation. Plots were generated using Microsoft Excel.

We thank Forest Curtis and Leslie Dunipace for initial characterization of enhancers, James McGehee for help with quantification, and Vince Stepanik for generating antibodies.

Author contributions

Conceptualization: A.S.; Methodology: J.S., A.B.; Validation: J.S., A.D.D.; Formal analysis: F.M.; Investigation: J.S., A.D.D., A.B., F.M.; Resources: A.S.; Data curation: J.S., A.D.D.; Writing - original draft: J.S., A.S.; Writing - review & editing: J.S., A.D.D., A.B., F.M., A.S.; Visualization: J.S., A.D.D., A.B., F.M.; Supervision: A.S.; Project administration: A.S.; Funding acquisition: A.S.

Funding

This study was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health (R01HD100189 to A.S.) and by a California State University, Monterey Bay UCORP Faculty Incentive Grant to F.M. Open Access funding provided by the California Institute of Technology. Deposited in PMC for immediate release.

Data availability

Sequences for ten enhancers used in this study have been deposited in GenBank under accession numbers OR364904-OR364913.

The people behind the papers

This article has an associated ‘The people behind the papers’ interview with some of the authors.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing or financial interests.

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