The gene mab-21, which encodes a novel protein of 386 amino acids, is required for the choice of alternate cell fates by several cells in the C. elegans male tail. Three cells descended from the ray 6 precursor cell adopt fates of anterior homologs, and a fourth, lineally unrelated hypodermal cell is transformed into a neuroblast. The affected cells lie together in the lateral tail epidermis, suggesting that mab-21 acts as part of a short-range pattern-formation mechanism. Each of the changes in cell fate brought about by mab-21 mutants can be interpreted as a posterior-to-anterior homeotic transformation. mab-21 mutant males and hermaphrodites have additional pleiotropic phenotypes affecting movement, body shape and fecundity, indicating that mab-21 has functions outside the tail region of males. We show that the three known alleles of mab-21 are hypomorphs of a new gene. Mosaic analysis revealed that mab-21 acts cell autonomously to specify the properties of the sensory ray, but non-autonomously in the hypodermal versus neuroblast cell fate choice. Presence of cell signalling in the choice of the neuroblast fate was confirmed by cell ablation experiments. Mutations in mab-21 were shown previously to be genetic modifiers of the effects of HOM-C/Hox gene mutations on ray identity specification. The results presented here support the conclusion that mab-21 acts as part of a mechanism required for correct cell fate choice, possibly involving the function of HOM-C/Hox genes in several body regions.
Six touch receptor neurons with distinctive morphological features sense gentle touch in Caenorhabditis elegans. Previous studies have identified three genes (lin-32, unc-86 and mec-3) that regulate touch cell development. However, since other cell types also require these genes, we suspected that other genes help restrict the expression of touch cell characteristics to the six neurons seen in the wild type. To identify such genes, we have examined mutants defective in genes required for the development of other C. elegans cells for changes in the pattern of touch cell-specific features. Mutations in seven genes either reduce (lin-14) or increase (lin-4, egl-44, egl-46, sem-4, ced-3 and ced-4) the number of touch receptor-like cells. The combinatorial action of these genes, all of which are required for the production of many cell types, restrict the number of cells expressing touch receptor characteristics in wild-type animals by acting as positive and negative regulators and by removing cells by programmed cell death.
The Caenorhabditis elegans epidermis comprises 78 cells which cover the external surface of the embryo as a single cell layer. These cells secrete the cuticle from their exterior faces and support the body wall muscles and most of the nervous system on their interior faces. The epidermal cells arise by autonomous embryonic cell lineages but show regulative interactions after their assembly into an epithelium. It is believed that the various epidermal cells express different kinds or amounts of surface molecules that govern their mutual assembly and also guide the attachments and migrations of the underlying body muscles and neurones. The first muscles and neurones may in turn express new surface molecules that refine later cell movements. Mutations in some 30 known genes disrupt the movements of cells or axons along the body wall.