Non-canonical Notch signaling represents an ancestral mechanism to regulate neural differentiation
© Layden and Martindale; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 27 May 2014
Accepted: 12 August 2014
Published: 19 September 2014
Cellular differentiation is a critical process during development of multicellular animals that must be tightly controlled in order to avoid precocious differentiation or failed generation of differentiated cell types. Research in flies, vertebrates, and nematodes has led to the identification of a conserved role for Notch signaling as a mechanism to regulate cellular differentiation regardless of tissue/cell type. Notch signaling can occur through a canonical pathway that results in the activation of hes gene expression by a complex consisting of the Notch intracellular domain, SuH, and the Mastermind co-activator. Alternatively, Notch signaling can occur via a non-canonical mechanism that does not require SuH or activation of hes gene expression. Regardless of which mechanism is being used, high Notch activity generally inhibits further differentiation, while low Notch activity promotes differentiation. Flies, vertebrates, and nematodes are all bilaterians, and it is therefore unclear if Notch regulation of differentiation is a bilaterian innovation, or if it represents a more ancient mechanism in animals.
To reconstruct the ancestral function of Notch signaling we investigate Notch function in a non-bilaterian animal, the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis (Cnidaria). Morpholino or pharmacological knockdown of Nvnotch causes increased expression of the neural differentiation gene NvashA. Conversely, overactivation of Notch activity resulting from overexpression of the Nvnotch intracellular domain or by overexpression of the Notch ligand Nvdelta suppresses NvashA. We also knocked down or overactivated components of the canonical Notch signaling pathway. We disrupted NvsuH with morpholino or by overexpressing a dominant negative NvsuH construct. We saw no change in expression levels for Nvhes genes or NvashA. Overexpression of Nvhes genes did not alter NvashA expression levels. Lastly, we tested additional markers associated with neuronal differentiation and observed that non-canonical Notch signaling broadly suppresses neural differentiation in Nematostella.
We conclude that one ancestral role for Notch in metazoans was to regulate neural differentiation. Remarkably, we found no evidence for a functional canonical Notch pathway during Nematostella embryogenesis, suggesting that the non-canonical hes-independent Notch signaling mechanism may represent an ancestral Notch signaling pathway.
KeywordsNotch Nvnotch Nematostella vectensis Cellular differentiation Evolution
Metazoan development requires a mechanism to control the balance between pools of cells that are able to differentiate into distinct specialized cell types and cells that remain undifferentiated to contribute to growth or differentiate at a later time. Identifying the mechanisms that regulate this balance provides insights into the evolution of animal developmental programs and clues as to the putative molecular changes that underscored the emergence of metazoans from single-celled ancestors. Functional studies have identified the Notch signaling pathway (described below) as a conserved regulator of cellular differentiation, but this is only known from bilaterian animals. There are at least four metazoan lineages that diverged prior to the emergence of bilaterians. They are the ctenophores, poriferans, placozoans, and cnidarians, with cnidarians being the most closely related to bilaterians[1–4].
Notch signaling is implicated as a regulator of cellular differentiation in multiple bilaterian tissue types including neural, blood, epidermal, endothelial, muscle, and bone[5–10]. A well known and studied example of Notch regulation of differentiation is in bilaterian neurogenesis. During the formation of the Drosophila ventral nerve cord, cells with high Notch activity suppress the formation of a neuroblast progenitor cell in favor of maintaining undifferentiated neural ectoderm fate[11, 12]. Similarly, in vertebrate neurogenesis, high Notch activity in neural stem cells acts to maintain a neural stem cell fate identity, while low notch activity in daughter cells promotes neuronal differentiation[8, 13]. In both vertebrate and invertebrate neurogenesis, Notch inhibits neurogenesis by repressing the expression of proneural gene transcription factors[11, 13–15]. Proneural gene transcription factors are basic helix-loop-helix transcription factors that belong to either the achaete-scute or atonal gene families.
There are two mechanisms by which Notch can regulate differentiation. They are the canonical and non-canonical pathway[16, 17]. The core minimal components shared by both pathways are the notch receptor, delta ligand, and the γ-secretase and ADAM protease cleavage complexes[9, 16]. Additional core components required specifically for canonical Notch signaling are hes, suH, smrt, and mastermind[9, 18, 19]. Both canonical and non-canonical pathways are typically initiated by the binding of Delta to the Notch receptor, which induces cleavage and release of the Notch intracellular domain by Adam protease and γ-secretase cleavage events. In the canonical pathway, the Notch intracellular domain interacts with SuH and displaces the SMRT co-repressor normally bound to SuH and recruits the Mastermind transcriptional co-activator. This complex then induces expression of the hes genes, which regulate expression of Notch targets, such as the proneural genes[9, 16, 18]. Non-canonical Notch signaling bypasses interactions with SuH and activation of hes gene expression, to regulate target gene expression via alternative mechanisms[16, 20].
Genomic analyses of core conserved Notch components suggest that the core Notch pathway evolved specifically in the metazoan lineage. notch, delta, and hes homologs do not exist outside of the metazoans[19, 21], and all five major animal clades possess a Notch homolog. The ctenophores are the only non-bilaterians lacking a definitive Delta ligand, although they possess many Delta-like proteins that could potentially activate Notch ligands[1, 19], and, recently, Delta-like genes have been identified to activate Notch in bilaterians. Of the remaining core conserved genes, the members of the γ-secretase complex and ADAM proteases all predate the metazoan divergence. Key regulatory components of the canonical Notch pathway were not present until the emergence of the cnidarian-bilaterian common ancestor. The suH gene evolved prior to the earliest metazoans, but the mastermind co-activator evolved in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor, and the SMRT co-repressor is not present outside of the bilaterian lineage[1, 3, 4, 19, 23, 24]. Thus, although Notch signaling evolved early in the metazoan lineage, it is unclear if the canonical or non-canonical pathway represents the ancestral Notch signaling mechanism.
One way to determine the evolution of a particular signaling pathway is to determine how it functions in phylogenetically informative extant animals that allow reconstruction of the ancestral role(s) of the pathway at deep evolutionary nodes within the animal phylogeny. However, gene-specific functional studies addressing Notch signaling in non-bilaterian metazoans is currently lacking. Characterization of the expression patterns of Notch signaling components and pharmacological disruption of γ-secretase implicate Notch as a regulator of differentiation in the non-bilaterians[25–28]. First, in the poriferan Amphimedon queenslandica, Amqdelta homologs are expressed in differentiating cell types throughout development. In the cnidarians, treatment with DAPT, which inhibits γ-secretase cleavage of the Notch intracellular domain[26, 28, 29], increases expression of differentiated cell markers (particularly neuronal markers). One of these markers is NvashA, which is an achaete-scute gene family homolog known to regulate embryonic neurogenesis in Nematostella. Marlow and coworkers also investigated the role of NvsuH on development of the cnidocytes, which are the stinging cells in Nematostella, using a splice blocking morpholino (MO) against the NvsuH gene and a dominant negative construct. They found that mature cnidocytes were lacking in Nematostella planula when NvsuH function was reduced and that this phenotype was similar to the reduction in cnidocytes resulting from treating animals with DAPT. However, in this study the authors did not compare other phenotypes resulting from DAPT treatment with a disruption of NvsuH. DAPT treatment has been found to inhibit maturation, but not specification, of cnidocytes in polyps of the hydrozoan cnidarian Hydra. Taken together, the previous studies in non-bilaterians suggest that Notch signaling played a role in regulating the process of neuronal cell differentiation in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor, but the lack of detailed gene-specific studies does not clarify if the canonical or non-canonical Notch signaling pathway represents the ancestral mechanism of Notch signaling.
Here we take advantage of the ability to conduct functional genetic experiments in the cnidarian sea anemone Nematostella vectensis to characterize the role of Notch signaling during embryonic development. We show that Notch activity in Nematostella suppresses expression of NvashA-dependent neural differentiation markers, and that the suppression of NvashA-dependent neural markers occurs via specific inhibition of NvashA expression by Nvnotch. We also show that Notch activity broadly inhibits expression of neuronal differentiation markers for other neural cell types in the Nematostella embryo. Although some components of canonical Notch signaling are present in the Nematostella genome, our experiments indicate that inhibition of differentiated cell markers occurs via the non-canonical (Nvhes-independent) mechanism during embryonic development.
Genes used in this study
Embryo manipulations and in situ analysis
All embryos were grown to either early gastrula stages, by raising animals for 24 hours post-fertilization (hpf) at 17°C, or to late gastrula stages, by raising animals for 24 hpf at 25°C. All fixation, in situ probe synthesis, and in situ hybridizations were carried out as previously described[30, 32, 33]. Images were obtained on a Zeiss Imager M2 in conjunction with the Axiocam HRc and ZenPro software (Carl Zeiss LLC, Thornwood, NY, USA). For gastrula stage analysis, 10 μM DAPT treatment was begun 3 hpf as previously described. For larval stage analysis of DAPT-treated animals, animals were allowed to grow to desired stage (either 24 or 48 hpf at 25°C) and then, animals were incubated in 10 μM DAPT for 24 hours.
The Nvnicd fusion construct was generated by PCR amplifying the intracellular domain of Nvnotch using (Forward 5′ CACCATGGTTGTTGTGCTCGCAGGCGGTAAG 3′ and Reverse 5′ GTCTGATAATAACTCCACTATGTC 3′) PCR primers. The PCR product was then cloned Nvnicd in frame and 5′ to the venus coding sequence using the Gateway cloning vector system (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA, USA). Full length Nvdelta was amplified using the (Forward 5′CACCATGCAGCTACTACCACTCCAGCCATCAC 3′ and Reverse 5′ ATATTTCCACTTCCACTTCTTGCCAG 3′) primers and cloned in frame 5′ to the venus coding sequence. Nvhes2 and Nvhes3 constructs were cloned using (Forward 5′ CACCATGGAAAAAATGCGGAGGGCGAG 3′ and Reverse 5′ TCAAATTGTCCTCCCCATTCAC 3′) and (Forward 5′ CACCGCCGTTGACTGCATCGATAGC 3′ and Reverse 5′ TCACCATGGGCGCCACAGTG) PCR primers, respectively. They were both cloned in frame to the 3′ end of the venus coding sequence. Injection concentration of the Nvnicd:venus was 300 ng/μl. Injection concentration of Nvdelta:venus was 900 ng/μl. Injection concentrations of venus:hes2 and venus:hes3 were 300 ng/μl and 150 ng/μl, respectively. We injected the previously published NvashA:venus and NvsuHDN:venus mRNA as described previously (Layden and colleagues and Marlow and colleagues). mRNA was prepared and injected as previous described[30, 34]. Animals were sorted prior to analysis to identify embryos expressing the Venus reporter protein and to eliminate the non-expressing animals.
Fluorescein labeled NvashA translation-blocking MO was injected as published. NvSuH splice-blocking MO was injected, and splice blocking was observed as previously described. An Nvnotch splice-blocking MO (5′ GTCCTTTGATTTCGTACCTCATGGA 3′) (GeneTools Inc., Philomath, OR, USA) that results in a truncation of the Nvnotch intracellular domain and Nvdelta splice-blocking MO (5′ GCGACCTGACAAGAACAGTGAAGTC 3′) (GeneTools Inc.) that removes the exon containing the MNNL domain were designed and injected at 1 mM and 600 nM, respectively. Splice-blocking efficiency was estimated using PCR and DNA electrophoresis to observe shifts in the size of the wild-type or morphant mRNA. A control MO (5′ AGAGGAAGAATAACATACCCTGTCC 3′) was also injected at a concentration of 1 mM and gene expression was compared to uninjected control animals. Animals were sorted after injection to eliminate the uninjected animals as indicated by the lack of fluorescence.
Quantification of cell number
To count the number of NvashA-expressing cells we mounted animals with the aboral end up, visualized using the 10× objective on the Zeiss Imager M2 (Carl Zeiss LLC). We normalized the focal plane by focusing on the most superficial level of the aboral ectoderm and then counted the total number of visible cells.
Quantitative PCR analysis
RNA isolation and quantitative (q)PCR analyses were conducted as previously described. Nvactin, Nvef1B, and Nvatpsynthase house-keeping genes were used to normalize fold change in qPCR experiments. All qPCR primers used have been previously described[26, 30, 35]. Each qPCR analysis was repeated in triplicate pools of embryos injected in independent sessions. Based on previous studies, we consider a fold change greater than 1.5 meaningful. We often fail to detect changes in expression via alternative approaches for fold-changes less than 1.5.
Nvnotch and Nvdelta spatiotemporal expression is consistent with that of a regulator of cellular differentiation
Nvnotch inhibits expression of the neurogenic transcription factor NvashA
To determine if Notch signaling in Nematostella functions to regulate cellular differentiation, we chose to characterize the effects of NvNotch activity on the expression of the previously identified neural differentiation gene NvashA. Previous reports showed that continuous treatment with DAPT for 72 hours resulted in an upregulation of NvashA, but this study did not characterize earlier DAPT phenotypes. We assayed gastrula treated with 10 μM DAPT for NvashA expression by mRNA in situ hybridization and qPCR (Additional file1; Figure 2). NvashA expression levels increased by approximately two-fold in DAPT treated animals (Additional file1; Figure 2G). Because DAPT does not directly inhibit Notch signaling, we were concerned that the DAPT NvashA phenotype may be caused by a disruption of a pathway other than Notch. To confirm that Notch signaling specifically inhibits NvashA expression, we generated splice-blocking MOs directed against the Nvdelta ligand and the Nvnotch receptor (Additional file2A). The splice-blocking Nvnotch MO results in Nvnotch mRNAs containing stop codons that result in a premature truncation of the Notch intracellular domain (data not shown). Injection of the Nvnotch splice-blocking MO resulted in a cell that appeared to express relatively higher levels of NvashA compared to control (compare Figure 2A and D to B and E), a two-fold increase in NvashA expression measured by qPCR (Figure 2G), and a 60% increase in the number of NvashA positive cells (Figure 2H). The similar increase in NvashA expression observed in DAPT-treated and Nvnotch MO-injected animals suggest that the NvashA phenotype observed in DAPT-treated animals is specifically due to inhibition of NvNotch. A splice-blocking MO generated against NvDelta generates a miss-spliced transcript that encodes an Nvdelta transcript only missing the MNNL domain present in the extracellular region of the protein (Additional file2A; data not shown). Injection of the Nvdelta splice-blocking MO results in an approximate 1.6-fold increase in NvashA expression (Figure 2G). This demonstrates that NvNotch and NvDelta are both required to repress NvashA in the embryonic ectoderm.
Notch activity suppresses neurogenesis through repression of NvashA expression
Post-embryonic treatment with DAPT increases NvashA expression in the larval ectoderm and endoderm
Nvnotch broadly inhibits expression of genes associated with neuronal differentiation
To confirm these genes are independent of NvashA, we attempted to rescue the loss of “salt and pepper” gene expression resulting from overactivation of Notch signaling by co-injecting the Nvnicd:venus and the NvashA:venus constructs (Figure 6, light orange bars). Only Nvgcm was rescued by expression of NvashA. This suggests that, with the exception of Nvgcm, the “salt and pepper” genes are not targets of NvashA. Therefore, we suggest Notch activity broadly regulates expression of genes associated with neural differentiation in the Nematostella embryo.
The non-canonical Notch signaling pathway inhibits NvashA expression
To determine if canonical Notch signaling could regulate the NvashA-independent “salt and pepper” expressed genes associated with cellular differentiation, we tested whether overexpressing Nvhes2 or Nvhes3 via injection of the venus:Nvhes2 or venus:Nvhes3 mRNA could suppress expression of the “salt and pepper” genes. We saw no change in the expression levels by qPCR for any of the “salt and pepper” genes assayed here (Additional file4, light and dark blue bars). Thus, it appears that non-canonical Notch signaling broadly suppresses expression of genes that promote neural differentiation in Nematostella embryos.
Model of Notch signaling in Nematostella
Our data show that NvNotch is activated by NvDelta to regulate cellular differentiation in Nematostella, but based on our observations here it is likely that Notch activity in Nematostella regulates the competence of cells to respond to a variety of instructive differentiation cues. Elevated levels of Notch activity suppress differentiated cell markers, while decreased levels of Notch activity increase expression of differentiated cell markers (Figures 1 and8; Additional file1). However, inhibition of Notch signaling is not sufficient to induce a total transformation of cells into differentiated cells. This suggests that Notch either acts at defined time points in the differentiation process or that Notch-independent instructive cues act to induce particular differentiated cell types. Our model predicts that the relative level of Notch activity and the amount of inductive signal coordinate to determine if differentiation will occur. Consistent with this prediction, extending treatment with DAPT to 3 days results in animals that have a more pronounced expansion of differentiated cell markers than our early shorter treatment. One interpretation is that extended inhibition of Notch activity provides more opportunity for undifferentiated cells to encounter and respond to external inductive cues. Additionally, quantification of the number of cells expressing any one “salt and pepper” gene is not often reproducible from animal to animal (Figure 1H; unpublished observations), suggesting that the mechanism governing the number of cells of a distinct cell type is somewhat stochastic. Taken together these observations argue that, in any given animal at a given time, there are variable numbers of cells competent to respond to distinct differentiation cues. Our data supports the hypothesis that the competence is in part regulated by Nvnotch activity.
Notch appears to function broadly to inhibit neural differentiation. We tested a number of genes that have been previously reported to be associated with differentiation during Nematostella development (Figure 6; Additional file3). We found that inhibiting Nvnotch by injecting the Nvnotch MO or by treating with DAPT resulted in upregulation of the differentiated markers. Conversely, overactivation of Notch by overexpressing the Nvnicd:venus mRNA suppressed expression of the differentiation markers. The markers that we used (NvashA, Nvsox2, Nvgcm, Nvsoxb2, Nvath-like, Nvmef2.iv, Nvminicol4, Nvcoup1-like) are all predicted to be associated with neurogenesis and/or cnidocyte development in Nematostella, although (with the exception of NvashA, Nvmef2.iv, and Nvminicol4) none of them are confirmed regulators of neural development. Thus, we cannot conclude at this point if Notch broadly regulates expression of all differentiated cell types or specifically regulates neural development in Nematostella. Even if the differentiation genes we chose are specific to neural development we argue that they are independent of NvashA-dependent neural development. We show that, other than Nvgcm, none of the differentiation genes assayed here can be rescued when NvashA is overexpressed in animals with increased Notch activity (Figure 5). Also, we have not observed any co-expression of Nvsoxb2 or Nvsox2 with NvashA neural targets, and both NvsoxB2 and Nvsox2 are expressed in what appears to be many more cells than NvashA (unpublished observation). Thus, we are confident that Notch activity broadly inhibits expression of genes associated with neural differentiation, but cannot determine what other cell types might be regulated by Notch activity.
We also propose that Notch regulation of differentiation is a reiterative process during Nematostella development. Differentiation begins during the early gastrula stage of Nematostella development, but continues throughout embryonic and larval stages. The expression patterns of NvashA and other known developmental genes are known to be dynamic throughout these stages[30, 31, 36, 38]. Expression of Notch signaling components appears to be enriched in tissues likely to be undergoing cellular differentiation during development. For example, the embryonic expression of Nvnotch and Nvdelta initiate in the ectoderm, and are maintained there until late planula stages (Figure 2). In early planula stages the endoderm begins to show expression of differentiated cell markers[31, 36]. Endodermal expression of Nvnotch and Nvdelta are coincident with endodermal differentiation. Nvnotch and Nvdelta are expressed in the forming and growing tentacle buds (unpublished observation), and expression in juvenile and adult polyps is maintained in the endodermal portion of the eight mesenteries, where constant differentiation of nematosomes is known to occur. We also found that treating with DAPT for distinct time windows throughout larval development resulted in the increased NvashA expression (Figure 5). This suggests that the same or a similar mechanism controls NvashA expression at later time points and in different tissues (endoderm versus ectoderm) than during embryonic development. We would like to extend this temporal analysis to gene-specific knockdowns of Nvnotch. However, we focused this initial study on the early embryonic roles of Nvnotch because conditional knockdown of Nvnotch function specifically at later time points is still difficult in Nematostella. As the technology of conditional alleles to disrupt gene function specifically at distinct life stages in Nematostella advances, and as identification of genes that serve as markers for cells differentiated within distinct temporal windows are found, our model can be tested further. We predict that disrupting Notch activity in distinct temporal windows should disrupt only the cell types that are normally born within that time frame.
Notch signaling pathway may have emerged to regulate metazoan cellular differentiation
The emergence of multicellular animals with specialized cell types had to require a mechanism to regulate whether cells differentiate or remain pluripotent. Notch has been shown to have a highly conserved role as a regulator of differentiation in nearly all bilaterian tissues. However, prior to this study it was unclear how Notch functioned in non-bilaterian animals, and thus there was little inference about ancestral Notch function. We show that non-canonical Notch signaling in the cnidarian sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, broadly inhibits cellular differentiation during development. This provides a clear example of Notch regulating differentiation outside of Bilateria. Given how highly conserved the role for Notch as a regulator of differentiation appears, and the fact that core Notch components evolved specifically in metazoans, it is likely that Notch regulates differentiation in all metazoans. To fully support this hypothesis we need to reconstruct the function of Notch signaling in the common ancestor of all metazoans by characterizing the role of Notch in animals representing the earliest diverged metazoan lineage. The sister lineage to the rest of animals is still being debated, but the current consensus is that it is either Ctenophora or Porifera. Disruption of gene function in either of these groups has proven difficult, but we can infer putative function based on expression patterns. Expression of notch and delta homologs in the poriferan A. queenslandica initiates expression in a spatiotemporal pattern consistent with regulators of cellular differentation. The amqdelta homologs appear to be expressed in differentiating and differentiated cell types consistent with the idea that they activate Notch to suppress differentiation in the surrounding cells, while having low Notch activity themselves. The expression patterns of Notch signaling homologs in ctenophores are not known, and definitive homologs for delta have not been found. Thus, we cannot predict putative functions for Notch signaling in that lineage.
Evolution of canonical Notch signaling
Our results suggest that canonical Notch signaling is not present in the cnidarian lineage and that the canonical pathway evolved in the stem of the bilaterian lineage. In Nematostella, gene-specific knockdown of Nvnotch, NvsuH, or overactivation of Nvnicd did not significantly affect expression levels of Nvhes genes, which are an important target of the canonical Notch signaling pathway. Overactivation of Notch signaling by overexpressing either Nvnicd or Nvdelta was sufficient to suppress expression of differentiated cell markers, but both failed to upregulate any of the Nvhes genes monitored (Figure 5). Furthermore, overexpression of Nvhes2 or Nvhes3 failed to suppress NvashA or other genes associated with cellular differentiation (Figure 5; Additional file4). In addition, the expression of Nvhes homologs throughout Nematostella development are inconsistent with the notion that they are targets of Nvnotch signaling. Most Nvhes genes show minimal overlap with Nvnotch expression outside of the embryonic ectoderm. Three exceptions to this are Nvhes3 and Nvhl1, which overlap with Nvnotch expression in the oral ectoderm and aboral ectoderm during planula stages, and Nvhes1, which overlaps with the Nvnotch expression in the planula endoderm. However, Nvhes1 expression appears ubiquitous in the planula stages, whereas Nvnotch expression becomes limited to the endoderm, suggesting that the Nvhes1 expression is regulated by factors other than Nvnotch. The reported expression of NvsuH is also inconsistent with the idea that canonical Notch signaling regulates differentiation. NvsuH is not expressed in the differentiating ectoderm at the onset of cellular differentiation in the early gastrula when expression of NvashA and the “salt and pepper” genes is initiated. However, NvsuH is expressed ubiquitously later in the planula larval stages.
A closer examination of the phylogenetic distribution of canonical Notch signaling components in the three published cnidarian genomes also supports the lack of an intact canonical Notch pathway in cnidarians[4, 23, 24]. Previous analysis suggested that the cnidarian-bilaterian common ancestor was the first animal with a compliment of genes that participate in canonical Notch signaling. However, the cnidarian homologs of the transcriptional co-activator mastermind that is recruited to activate hes expression are only weakly conserved at best with bilaterian homologs[1, 19]. Moreover, SuH also interacts with the SMRT co-repressor to suppress expression of hes homologs when Notch signaling is not active. smrt homologs have not been identified in any of the currently published cnidarian genomes[4, 19, 23, 24].
It should be noted that most of the Nvhes genes are severely downregulated following DAPT treatment (Figure 5). However, our data argue that the DAPT-induced Nvhes phenotypes occur independently of Nvnotch. The current draft of the Nematostella genome describes only a single Nvnotch gene. However, there are additional single pass transmembrane proteins that, like Nvnotch, have EFG repeats in their extracellular domain (unpublished observation). The intracellular domains of these proteins lack the typical intracellular domains linking Notch signaling to hes gene regulation[19, 26], but because the γ-secretase complex is believed to cleave most single pass transmembrane signaling proteins, it is reasonable to hypothesize that DAPT is affecting one or more of these “Notch-like” proteins, and that they may regulate hes expression. Given that activation of hes expression is a hallmark of canonical Notch signaling, we speculate that some aspect of hes biology underlies the emergence of the canonical pathway. One explanation could be based on the fact that hes genes function as oscillators that promote cell proliferation[13, 42]. Interestingly, we observe Nvhes2 expression in proliferating cells (unpublished observation). Because high Notch activity often suppresses differentiation, perhaps incorporating regulation of proliferation downstream of Notch activity provided a mechanism to both suppress differentiation and promote proliferation. This is consistent with the observation that canonical Notch activity in the development of many bilaterian tissues is often associated with maintaining tissue-specific stem cells.
To verify that canonical Notch signaling is not intact in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor gene specific functional studies need to be conducted in other cnidarian species. Additional analyses need to be done in Nematostella once tools emerge to investigate roles for Notch signaling specifically during post-embryonic development. Currently, attempting to interpret late-stage phenotypes in morphant animals is complicated because it is unclear how early disruption of Nvnotch influences later development. Temporal-specific treatments with DAPT would not be informative because we showed that the responses of Nvhes genes to DAPT in the embryo are Nvnotch-independent phenotypes.
Based on our functional analysis in the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis and previous pharmacological experiments in other cnidarian species, we propose that the Notch signaling pathway regulated cellular differentiation in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor. This argues that the role of Notch as a regulator of cellular differentiation evolved prior to the last common ancestor of bilaterian animals. Functional studies are required in other non-bilaterian lineages to reconstruct the role of Notch signaling at more basal nodes in the metazoan phylogeny. Because all components of canonical Notch signaling likely did not evolve until the cnidarian-bilaterian common ancestor, a full complement of canonical signaling components only exists in the bilaterians, and because canonical Notch signaling is not required for Nvnotch to regulate embryonic neural differentiation in Nematostella, we speculate that non-canonical Notch signaling is the ancestral notch mechanism and that the canonical pathway likely evolved specifically in the bilaterian lineage.
(quantitative) polymerase chain reaction.
We wish to acknowledge Dr Leslie Babonis, Dr Timothy Dubuc, and Dr Joseph Ryan for their critical reading of this manuscript. This work was funded by grant number R21RR034343 from the National Institutes of Health.
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