Background: Canalization, or buffering, is defined as developmental stability in the face of genetic and/or environmental perturbations. Understanding how canalization works is important in predicting how species survive environmental change, as well as deciphering how development can be altered in the evolutionary process. However, how developmental gene expression is linked to buffering remains unclear. We addressed this by co-expression network analysis, comparing gene expression changes caused by heat stress during development at a whole-embryonic scale in reciprocal hybrid crosses of sibling species of the ascidian Ciona that are adapted to different thermal environments. Results: Since our previous work showed that developmental buffering in this group is maternally inherited, we first identified maternal developmental buffering genes (MDBGs) in which the expression level in embryos is both correlated to the level of environmental canalization and also differentially expressed depending on the species’ gender roles in hybrid crosses. We found only 15 MDBGs, all of which showed high correlation coefficient values for expression with a large number of other genes, and 14 of these belonged to a single co-expression module. We then calculated correlation coefficients of expression between MDBGs and transcription factors in the central nervous system (CNS) developmental gene network that had previously been identified experimentally. We found that, compared to the correlation coefficients between MDBGs, which had an average of 0.96, the MDBGs are loosely linked to the CNS developmental genes (average correlation coefficient 0.45). Further, we investigated the correlation of each developmental to MDBGs, showing that only four out of 62 CNS developmental genes showed correlation coefficient > 0.9, comparable to the values between MDBGs, and three of these four genes were signaling molecules: BMP2/4, Wnt7, and Delta-like. Conclusions: We show that the developmental pathway is not centrally located within the buffering network. We found that out of 62 genes in the developmental gene network, only four genes showed correlation coefficients as high as between MDBGs. We propose that loose links to MDBGs stabilize spatiotemporally dynamic development.
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