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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A periodic pattern generator for dental diversity

Gareth J Fraser*, Ryan F Bloomquist and J Todd Streelman

Author Affiliations

School of Biology, Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332-0230, USA

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BMC Biology 2008, 6:32  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-32

Published: 14 July 2008

Abstract

Background

Periodic patterning of iterative structures is a fundamental process during embryonic organization and development. Studies have shown how gene networks are employed to pattern butterfly eyespots, fly bristles and vertebrate epithelial appendages such as teeth, feathers, hair and mammary glands. Despite knowledge of how these features are organized, little is known about how diversity in periodic patterning is generated in nature. We address this problem through the molecular analysis of oral jaw dental diversity in Lake Malawi cichlids, where closely related species exhibit from 1 to 20 rows of teeth, with total teeth counts ranging from around 10 to 700.

Results

We investigate the expression of conserved gene networks (involving bmp2, bmp4, eda, edar, fgf8, pax9, pitx2, runx2, shh and wnt7b) known to pattern iterative structures and teeth in other vertebrates. We show that spatiotemporal variation in expression pattern reflects adult morphological diversity among three closely related Malawi cichlid species. Combinatorial epithelial expression of pitx2 and shh appears to govern the competence both of initial tooth sites and future tooth rows. Epithelial wnt7b and mesenchymal eda are expressed in the inter-germ and inter-row regions, and likely regulate the spacing of these shh-positive units. Finally, we used chemical knockdown to demonstrate the fundamental role of hedgehog signalling and initial placode formation in the organization of the periodically patterned cichlid dental programme.

Conclusion

Coordinated patterns of gene expression differ among Malawi species and prefigure the future-ordered distribution of functional teeth of specific size and spacing. This variation in gene expression among species occurs early in the developmental programme for dental patterning. These data show how a complex multi-rowed vertebrate dentition is organized and how developmental tinkering of conserved gene networks during iterative pattern formation can impact upon the evolution of trophic novelty.