Control of Hox transcription factor concentration and cell-to-cell variability by an auto-regulatory switch
The variability in transcription factor concentration among cells is an important developmental determinant, yet how variability is controlled remains poorly understood. Studies of variability have focused predominantly on monitoring mRNA production noise. Little information exists about transcription factor protein variability, since this requires the use of quantitative methods with single-molecule sensitivity. Using Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy (FCS), we characterised the concentration and variability of 14 endogenously tagged TFs in live Drosophila imaginal discs. For the Hox TF Antennapedia we investigated whether protein variability results from random stochastic events or is developmentally regulated. We found that Antennapedia transitioned from low concentration/high variability early, to high concentration/low variability later, in development. FCS and temporally resolved genetic studies uncovered that Antp itself is necessary and sufficient to drive a developmental regulatory switch from auto-activation to auto-repression, thereby reducing variability. This switch is controlled by progressive changes in relative concentrations of preferentially activating and repressing Antennapedia isoforms, which bind chromatin with different affinities. Mathematical modelling demonstrated that the experimentally supported auto-regulatory circuit can explain the increase of Antennapedia concentration and suppression of variability over time.
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