Patterning and growth control in vivo by an engineered GFP gradient

Patterning and growth control in vivo by an engineered GFP gradient

Engineering synthetic morphogens

Morphogens provide positional information during tissue development. For this behavior to occur, morphogens must spread out and form a concentration gradient; however, their mechanism of transport remains a matter of debate. Stapornwongkul et al. now show that in the presence of extracellular binding elements (binders), the inert green fluorescent protein (GFP) can form a detectable concentration gradient by diffusion in the developing fly wing (see the Perspective by Barkai and Shilo). When combining the expression of nonsignaling binders and receptors engineered to respond to GFP, a synthetic GFP gradient can substitute for a natural morphogen to organize growth and patterning. In related work, Toda et al. also show that GFP can be converted into a morphogen by providing anchoring interactions that tether the molecule, forming a gradient that can be recognized by synthetic receptors that activate gene expression. These synthetic morphogens can be used to program de novo multidomain tissue patterns. These results highlight core mechanisms of morphogen signaling and patterning and provide ways to program spatial tissue organization independently from endogenous morphogen pathways.

Science, this issue p. 321, p. 327; see also p. 292


Morphogen gradients provide positional information during development. To uncover the minimal requirements for morphogen gradient formation, we have engineered a synthetic morphogen in Drosophila wing primordia. We show that an inert protein, green fluorescent protein (GFP), can form a detectable diffusion-based gradient in the presence of surface-associated anti-GFP nanobodies, which modulate the gradient by trapping the ligand and limiting leakage from the tissue. We next fused anti-GFP nanobodies to the receptors of Dpp, a natural morphogen, to render them responsive to extracellular GFP. In the presence of these engineered receptors, GFP could replace Dpp to organize patterning and growth in vivo. Concomitant expression of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)–anchored nonsignaling receptors further improved patterning, to near–wild-type quality. Theoretical arguments suggest that GPI anchorage could be important for these receptors to expand the gradient length scale while at the same time reducing leakage.

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