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Abstract

Gene regulatory networks (GRNs) for development underlie cell fate specification and differentiation. Network topology, logic, and dynamics can be obtained by thorough experimental analysis. Our understanding of the GRN controlling endomesoderm specification in the sea urchin embryo has attained an advanced level such that it explains developmental phenomenology. Here we review how the network explains the mechanisms utilized in development to control the formation of dynamic expression patterns of transcription factors and signaling molecules. The network represents the genomic program controlling timely activation of specification and differentiation genes in the correct embryonic lineages. It can also be used to study evolution of body plans. We demonstrate how comparing the sea urchin GRN to that of the sea star and to that of later developmental stages in the sea urchin, reveals mechanisms underlying the origin of evolutionary novelty. The experimentally based GRN for endomesoderm specification in the sea urchin embryo provides unique insights into the system level properties of cell fate specification and its evolution. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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