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LSSS 2016-2017


Life Sciences Seminar Series


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Ralf Sommer

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany

Mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity: from developmental switch genes to epigenetics

Selected Publications

Chromatin remodelling and antisense-mediated up-regulation of the developmental switch gene eud-1 control predatory feeding plasticity.Serobyan V, Xiao H, Namdeo S, Rödelsperger C, Sieriebriennikov B, Witte H, Röseler W, Sommer RJ
Nat Commun 2016 Aug 4; 7:12337


Phenotypic plasticity has been suggested to act through developmental switches, but little is known about associated molecular mechanisms. In the nematode Pristionchus pacificus, the sulfatase eud-1 was identified as part of a developmental switch controlling mouth-form plasticity governing a predatory versus bacteriovorous mouth-form decision. Here we show that mutations in the conserved histone-acetyltransferase Ppa-lsy-12 and the methyl-binding-protein Ppa-mbd-2 mimic the eud-1 phenotype, resulting in the absence of one mouth-form. Mutations in both genes cause histone modification defects and reduced eud-1 expression. Surprisingly, Ppa-lsy-12 mutants also result in the down-regulation of an antisense-eud-1 RNA. eud-1 and antisense-eud-1 are co-expressed and further experiments suggest that antisense-eud-1 acts through eud-1 itself. Indeed, overexpression of the antisense-eud-1 RNA increases the eud-1-sensitive mouth-form and extends eud-1 expression. In contrast, this effect is absent in eud-1 mutants indicating that antisense-eud-1 positively regulates eud-1. Thus, chromatin remodelling and antisense-mediated up-regulation of eud-1 control feeding plasticity in Pristionchus.

Large-scale diversification without genetic isolation in nematode symbionts of figs.Susoy V, Herrmann M, Kanzaki N, Kruger M, Nguyen CN, Rödelsperger C, Röseler W, Weiler C, Giblin-Davis RM, Ragsdale EJ, Sommer RJ
Sci Adv 2016 Jan 15; 2(1):e1501031


Diversification is commonly understood to be the divergence of phenotypes accompanying that of lineages. In contrast, alternative phenotypes arising from a single genotype are almost exclusively limited to dimorphism in nature. We report a remarkable case of macroevolutionary-scale diversification without genetic divergence. Upon colonizing the island-like microecosystem of individual figs, symbiotic nematodes of the genus Pristionchus accumulated a polyphenism with up to five discrete adult morphotypes per species. By integrating laboratory and field experiments with extensive genotyping of individuals, including the analysis of 49 genomes from a single species, we show that rapid filling of potential ecological niches is possible without diversifying selection on genotypes. This uncoupling of morphological diversification and speciation in fig-associated nematodes has resulted from a remarkable expansion of discontinuous developmental plasticity.

Rapid diversification associated with a macroevolutionary pulse of developmental plasticity.Susoy V, Ragsdale EJ, Kanzaki N, Sommer RJ
Elife 2015 Feb 4; 4


Developmental plasticity has been proposed to facilitate phenotypic diversification in plants and animals, but the macroevolutionary potential of plastic traits remains to be objectively tested. We studied the evolution of feeding structures in a group of 90 nematodes, including Caenorhabditis elegans, some species of which have evolved a mouthpart polyphenism, moveable teeth, and predatory feeding. Comparative analyses of shape and form, using geometric morphometrics, and of structural complexity revealed a rapid process of diversification associated with developmental plasticity. First, dimorphism was associated with a sharp increase in complexity and elevated evolutionary rates, represented by a radiation of feeding-forms with structural novelties. Second, the subsequent assimilation of a single phenotype coincided with a decrease in mouthpart complexity but an even stronger increase in evolutionary rates. Our results suggest that a macroevolutionary 'pulse' of plasticity promotes novelties and, even after the secondary fixation of phenotypes, permits sustained rapid exploration of morphospace.

B. subtilis GS67 protects C. elegans from Gram-positive pathogens via fengycin-mediated microbial antagonism.Iatsenko I, Yim JJ, Schroeder FC, Sommer RJ
Curr Biol 2014 Nov 17; 24(22):2720-7


Studies on Caenorhabditis elegans have provided detailed insight into host-pathogen interactions. Usually, the E. coli strain OP50 is used as food source for laboratory studies, but recent work has shown that a variety of bacteria have dramatic effects on C. elegans physiology, including immune responses. However, the mechanisms by which different bacteria impact worm resistance to pathogens are poorly understood. Although pathogen-specific immune priming is often discussed as a mechanism underlying such observations, interspecies microbial antagonism might represent an alternative mode of action. Here, we use several natural Bacillus strains to study their effects on nematode survival upon pathogen challenge. We show that B. subtilis GS67 persists in the C. elegans intestine and increases worm resistance to Gram-positive pathogens, suggesting that direct inhibition of pathogens might be the primary protective mechanism. Indeed, chemical and genetic analyses identified the lipopeptide fengycin as the major inhibitory molecule produced by B. subtilis GS67. Specifically, a fengycin-defective mutant of B. subtilis GS67 lost inhibitory activity against pathogens and was unable to protect C. elegans from infections. Furthermore, we found that purified fengycin cures infected worms in a dose-dependent manner, indicating that it acts as an antibiotic. Our results reveal a molecular mechanism for commensal-mediated C. elegans protection and highlight the importance of interspecies microbial antagonism for the outcome of animal-pathogen interactions. Furthermore, our work strengthens C. elegans as an in vivo model to reveal protective mechanisms of commensal bacteria, including those relevant to mammalian hosts.

Natural variation in dauer pheromone production and sensing supports intraspecific competition in nematodes.Bose N, Meyer JM, Yim JJ, Mayer MG, Markov GV, Ogawa A, Schroeder FC, Sommer RJ
Curr Biol 2014 Jul 7; 24(13):1536-41


Dauer formation, a major nematode survival strategy, represents a model for small-molecule regulation of metazoan development [1-10]. Free-living nematodes excrete dauer-inducing pheromones that have been assumed to target conspecifics of the same genotype [9, 11]. However, recent studies in Pristionchus pacificus revealed that the dauer pheromone of some strains affects conspecifics of other genotypes more strongly than individuals of the same genotype [12]. To elucidate the mechanistic basis for this intriguing cross-preference, we compared six P. pacificus wild isolates to determine the chemical composition of their dauer-inducing metabolomes and responses to individual pheromone components. We found that these isolates produce dauer pheromone blends of different composition and respond differently to individual pheromone components. Strikingly, there is no correlation between production of and dauer response to a specific compound in individual strains. Specifically, pheromone components that are abundantly produced by one genotype induce dauer formation in other genotypes, but not necessarily in the abundant producer. Furthermore, some genotypes respond to pheromone components they do not produce themselves. These results support a model of intraspecific competition in nematode dauer formation. Indeed, we observed intraspecific competition among sympatric strains in a novel experimental assay, suggesting a new role of small molecules in nematode ecology.

A developmental switch coupled to the evolution of plasticity acts through a sulfatase.Ragsdale EJ, Müller MR, Rödelsperger C, Sommer RJ
Cell 2013 Nov 7; 155(4):922-33


Developmental plasticity has been suggested to facilitate phenotypic diversity, but the molecular mechanisms underlying this relationship are little understood. We analyzed a feeding dimorphism in Pristionchus nematodes whereby one of two alternative adult mouth forms is executed after an irreversible developmental decision. By integrating developmental genetics with functional tests in phenotypically divergent populations and species, we identified a regulator of plasticity, eud-1, that acts in a developmental switch. eud-1 mutations eliminate one mouth form, whereas overexpression of eud-1 fixes it. EUD-1 is a sulfatase that acts dosage dependently, is necessary and sufficient to control the sexual dimorphism of feeding forms, and has a conserved function in Pristionchus evolution. It is epistatic to known signaling cascades and results from lineage-specific gene duplications. EUD-1 thus executes a developmental switch for morphological plasticity in the adult stage, showing that regulatory pathways can evolve by terminal addition of new genes.

System-wide rewiring underlies behavioral differences in predatory and bacterial-feeding nematodes.Bumbarger DJ, Riebesell M, Rödelsperger C, Sommer RJ
Cell 2013 Jan 17; 152(1-2):109-19


The relationship between neural circuit function and patterns of synaptic connectivity is poorly understood, in part due to a lack of comparative data for larger complete systems. We compare system-wide maps of synaptic connectivity generated from serial transmission electron microscopy for the pharyngeal nervous systems of two nematodes with divergent feeding behavior: the microbivore Caenorhabditis elegans and the predatory nematode Pristionchus pacificus. We uncover a massive rewiring in a complex system of identified neurons, all of which are homologous based on neurite anatomy and cell body position. Comparative graph theoretical analysis reveals a striking pattern of neuronal wiring with increased connectional complexity in the anterior pharynx correlating with tooth-like denticles, a morphological feature in the mouth of P. pacificus. We apply focused centrality methods to identify neurons I1 and I2 as candidates for regulating predatory feeding and predict substantial divergence in the function of pharyngeal glands.