Quantitative imaging of the Dorsal nuclear gradient reveals limitations to threshold-dependent patterning in Drosophila
The NF-κB-related transcription factor, Dorsal, forms a nuclear concentration gradient in the early Drosophila embryo, patterning the dorsal-ventral (DV) axis to specify mesoderm, neurogenic ectoderm, and dorsal ectoderm cell fates. The concentration of nuclear Dorsal is thought to determine these patterning events; however, the levels of nuclear Dorsal have not been quantified previously. Furthermore, existing models of Dorsal-dependent germ layer specification and patterning consider steady-state levels of Dorsal relative to target gene expression patterns, yet both Dorsal gradient formation and gene expression are dynamic. We devised a quantitative imaging method to measure the Dorsal nuclear gradient while simultaneously examining Dorsal target gene expression along the DV axis. Unlike observations from other insects such as Tribolium, we find the Dorsal gradient maintains a constant bell-shaped distribution during embryogenesis. We also find that some classical Dorsal target genes are located outside the region of graded Dorsal nuclear localization, raising the question of whether these genes are direct Dorsal targets. Additionally, we show that Dorsal levels change in time during embryogenesis such that a steady state is not reached. These results suggest that the multiple gene expression outputs observed along the DV axis do not simply reflect a steady-state Dorsal nuclear gradient. Instead, we propose that the Dorsal gradient supplies positional information throughout nuclear cycles 10-14, providing additional evidence for the idea that compensatory combinatorial interactions between Dorsal and other factors effect differential gene expression along the DV axis.