to researchers worldwide (e.g., the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/BLAST/>).
By the time the Drosophila mutants were characterized in the mid-1980s, techniques were well-suited for molecular genetic analysis of affected genes and gene products. This part of the work moved quickly, thanks to gene-cloning techniques, background information about gene sequence motifs and protein function, and databases available to researchers worldwide. The successful isolation of a gene responsible for a developmental phenotype (when the gene was mutated) could be validated by the rescue of the mutant phenotype by transformation with the wild-type gene (usually as DNA included in a P-element transposon). In situ hybridization, coupled with color stains, readily revealed the normal time and place of expression of the specific genes whose mutations had been isolated. Regarding the function of these developmental genes, many were found to encode proteins with familiar motifs, such as those for receptor tyrosine kinases or various transcription factors. In fact, a surprisingly large number turned out to be transcriptional regulators. Function could be rapidly concluded from sequence data. Other Drosophila genes encoded proteins whose specific functions were unknown, yet they were recognizable generally as secreted proteins by their signal sequences or as new transcription factors by the fact they accumulated in nuclei and could bind to DNA. In the course of this analysis, new intercellular signaling pathways were discovered, such as those involving the Decapentaplegic (DPP), Hedgehog (HH), Wingless (WG), and Notch/Delta ligands. (The whimsical names are those given by researchers to mutants based on the phenotypes.)
Hundreds of laboratories worldwide joined the work on Drosophila mutants, and the picture of early development took on a satisfying coherence and clarity, especially the steps of generation of segmentation and of the overall body organization in the anteroposterior and dorsoventral dimensions. These steps of early development are known collectively as “axis specification.” The following is a brief summary of that picture to illustrate its completeness at the molecular level. The steps are stage-specific mechanisms of development. The mechanisms are now better understood in Drosophila than in any other organism. It is the kind of information scientists would like to have, but do not yet have, for mammalian development.
At the start of Drosophila development, the oocyte is provisioned with hundreds of maternal gene products that are uniformly distributed in the egg during oogenesis. Four gene products are spatially localized in the egg, however, and they provide the initial asymmetries on which the entire anteroposterior and dorsoventral organization of the embryo is built stepwise in development after fertilization. The four gene products include the following: