During development, cell fate decisions are often highly stochastic, but with the frequency of the different possible fates tightly controlled. To understand how signaling networks control the cell fate frequency of such random decisions, we studied the stochastic decision of the Caenorhabditis elegans P3.p cell to either fuse to the hypodermis or assume vulva precursor cell fate. Using time-lapse microscopy to measure the single-cell dynamics of two key inhibitors of cell fusion, the Hox gene LIN-39 and Wnt signaling through the β-catenin BAR-1, we uncovered significant variability in the dynamics of LIN-39 and BAR-1 levels. Most strikingly, we observed that BAR-1 accumulated in a single, 1–4 ​h pulse at the time of the P3.p cell fate decision, with strong variability both in pulse slope and time of pulse onset. We found that the time of BAR-1 pulse onset was delayed relative to the time of cell fusion in mutants with low cell fusion frequency, linking BAR-1 pulse timing to cell fate outcome. Overall, a model emerged where animal-to-animal variability in LIN-39 levels and BAR-1 pulse dynamics biases cell fate by modulating their absolute level at the time cell fusion is induced. Our results highlight that timing of cell signaling dynamics, rather than its average level or amplitude, could play an instructive role in determining cell fate.

Amsterdam: Elsevier
Developmental Biology
Quantitative Developmental Biology

Kroll, J.R, Tsiaxiras, J, & van Zon, J.S. (2020). Variability in the timing of a β-catenin pulse biases a stochastic cell fate decision in C. elegans. Developmental Biology, 461(2), 110–123. doi:10.1016/j.ydbio.2020.02.004