Biological systems are subject to inherent stochasticity. Nevertheless, development is remarkably robust, ensuring the consistency of key phenotypic traits such as correct cell numbers in a certain tissue. It is currently unclear which genes modulate phenotypic variability, what their relationship is to core components of developmental gene networks, and what is the developmental basis of variable phenotypes. Here, we start addressing these questions using the robust number of Caenorhabditis elegans epidermal stem cells, known as seam cells, as a readout. We employ genetics, cell lineage tracing, and single molecule imaging to show that mutations in lin-22, a Hes-related basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factor, increase seam cell number variability. We show that the increase in phenotypic variability is due to stochastic conversion of normally symmetric cell divisions to asymmetric and vice versa during development, which affect the terminal seam cell number in opposing directions. We demonstrate that LIN-22 acts within the epidermal gene network to antagonise the Wnt signalling pathway. However, lin-22 mutants exhibit cell-to-cell variability in Wnt pathway activation, which correlates with and may drive phenotypic variability. Our study demonstrates the feasibility to study phenotypic trait variance in tractable model organisms using unbiased mutagenesis screens.
- Journal Article