Division of Biology 156-29, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.
The developmental process is controlled by the information processing functions executed by the cis-elements that regulate the expression of the participating genes. A model of the network of cis-regulatory interactions that underlies the specification of the endomesoderm of the sea urchin embryo is analyzed here. Although not all the relevant interactions have yet been uncovered, the model shows how the information processing functions executed by the cis-regulatory elements involved can control essential functions of the specification process, such as transforming the localization of maternal factors into a domain-specific program of gene expression; refining the specification pattern; and stabilizing states of specification. The analysis suggests that the progressivity of the developmental process is also controlled by the cis-regulatory interactions unraveled by the network model. Given that evolution occurs by changing the program for development of the body plan, we illustrate the potential of developmental gene network analysis in understanding the process by which morphological features are maintained and diversify. Comparison of the network of cis-regulatory interactions with a portion of that underlying the specification of the endomesoderm of the starfish illustrates how the similarities and differences provide insights into how the programs for development work and how they evolve.