Fly larvae grow in an unusual way. Most embryos grow by increasing the number of cells in the embryo, but fly larvae grow by increasing the size of their cells. The epidermal cells in the growing larvae secrete a hard skin or cuticle that is renewed three times as they grow. This cuticle is decorated with teeth called denticles that the larvae use to grip surfaces as they crawl on them.
The denticles are arranged in six rows during all three larval stages.
It has long been assumed that if a cell in the first larval stage makes the denticles belonging to a given row, then the same cell will make denticles in the same row in the second and third larval stages. Now Saavedra et al. report that this assumption is mistaken and that the epidermal cells rearrange extensively between the first and second larval stages, and that cells acquire different identities to keep the pattern constant (DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01569.002).
Saavedra et al. marked small groups of cells in the embryo and plotted the positions of these cells as the larvae progressed through the three stages of development. These measurements showed that as the larvae grow, the cells changed their positions relative to each other. This meant that, in order to keep essentially the same pattern of denticle rows, the cells had to change their identity.
Some of these changes were quite dramatic. Consider, for example, the embryonic cells that make the denticles in the second of the six rows during the first larval stage. In the embryo, these cells are tendons and attach to the muscles needed for crawling. Saavedra et al. found that these cells remain attached to the same muscles throughout growth, but that they do not make denticles during the second and third larval stages. Instead, the denticles in the second row of later larval stages are made by other cells, and these new second row cells are not attached to any muscles. In another example of these changes, some cells make denticles that point away from the head during the first larval stage, and then make denticles that point towards the head during later stages. Thus, cells can change both their identity (e.g., whether they are attached to muscles or not) and their orientation (also known as the cell polarity) during the development of a larva.
The work of Saavedra et al. illustrates how organisms adapt developmental mechanisms that have been stabilised for millions of years and for this reason limit the kinds of morphological changes that are possible.