Bouldin, C.M., Manning, A.J., Peng, Y.H., Farr, G.H., Hung, K.L., Dong, A., Kimelman, D. (2015) Wnt signaling and tbx16 form a bistable switch to commit bipotential progenitors to mesoderm. Development (Cambridge, England). 142:2499-507.
Anterior to posterior growth of the vertebrate body is fueled by a posteriorly located population of bipotential neuro-mesodermal progenitor cells. These progenitors have a limited rate of proliferation and their maintenance is crucial for completion of the anterior-posterior axis. How they leave the progenitor state and commit to differentiation is largely unknown, in part because widespread modulation of factors essential for this process causes organism-wide effects. Using a novel assay, we show that zebrafish Tbx16 (Spadetail) is capable of advancing mesodermal differentiation cell-autonomously. Tbx16 locks cells into the mesodermal state by not only activating downstream mesodermal genes, but also by repressing bipotential progenitor genes, in part through a direct repression of sox2. We demonstrate that tbx16 is activated as cells move from an intermediate Wnt environment to a high Wnt environment, and show that Wnt signaling activates the tbx16 promoter. Importantly, high-level Wnt signaling is able to accelerate mesodermal differentiation cell-autonomously, just as we observe with Tbx16. Finally, because our assay for mesodermal commitment is quantitative we are able to show that the acceleration of mesodermal differentiation is surprisingly incomplete, implicating a potential separation of cell movement and differentiation during this process. Together, our data suggest a model in which high levels of Wnt signaling induce a transition to mesoderm by directly activating tbx16, which in turn acts to irreversibly flip a bistable switch, leading to maintenance of the mesodermal fate and repression of the bipotential progenitor state, even as cells leave the initial high-Wnt environment.