Natural size variation among embryos leads to the corresponding scaling in gene expression

Avi Leibovich, Tamir Edri, Steven L. Klein, Sally A. Moody, Abraham Fainsod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Xenopus laevis frogs from laboratory stocks normally lay eggs exhibiting extensive size variability. We find that these initial size differences subsequently affect the size of the embryos prior to the onset of growth, and the size of tadpoles during the growth period. Even though these tadpoles differ in size, their tissues, organs, and structures always seem to be properly proportioned, i.e. they display static allometry. Initial axial patterning events in Xenopus occur in a spherical embryo, allowing easy documentation of their size-dependent features. We examined the size distribution of early Xenopus laevis embryos and measured diameters that differed by about 38% with a median of about 1.43 ​mm. This range of embryo sizes corresponds to about a 1.9-fold difference in surface area and a 2.6-fold difference in volume. We examined the relationship between embryo size and gene expression and observed a significant correlation between diameter and RNA content during gastrula stages. In addition, we investigated the expression levels of genes that pattern the mesoderm, induce the nervous system and mediate the progression of ectodermal cells to neural precursors in large and small embryos. We found that most of these factors were expressed at levels that scaled with the different embryo sizes and total embryo RNA content. In agreement with the changes in transcript levels, the expression domains in larger embryos increased proportionally with the increase in surface area, maintaining their relative expression domain size in relation to the total size of the embryo. Thus, our study identified a mechanism for adapting gene expression domains to embryo size by adjusting the transcript levels of the genes regulating mesoderm induction and patterning. In the neural plate, besides the scaling of the expression domains, we observed similar cell sizes and cell densities in small and large embryos suggesting that additional cell divisions took place in large embryos to compensate for the increased size. Our results show in detail the size variability among Xenopus laevis embryos and the transcriptional adaptation to scale gene expression with size. The observations further support the involvement of BMP/ADMP signaling in the scaling process.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)165-179
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 15 Jun 2020


  • ADMP
  • Allometry
  • BMP
  • Marginal zone
  • Neural induction
  • Neural plate
  • Patterning
  • Size scaling
  • Spemann's organizer
  • Xenopus

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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