Every time I mention this developmentally significant molecule, Sonic hedgehog, I get a volley of questions about whether it is really called that, what it does, and why it keeps cropping up in articles about everything from snake fangs to mouse penises to whale fins to worm brains. The time seems appropriate to give a brief introduction to the hedgehog family of signaling molecules.
First, a brief overview of what Sonic hedgehog, or shh, is, which will also give you an idea about why it keeps coming up in these development papers. We often compare the genome to a toolbox — a collection of tools that play various roles in the construction of an organism. If I had to say what tool Sonic hedgehog is most like (keeping in mind that metaphors should not be overstretched), it would be like a tape measure. It’s going to have multiple uses: as a straightedge, as a paperweight to hold down your blueprints, as something to fence with your coworkers on a break, and even to measure distances. It will be pulled out at multiple times during a construction job, and it’s generically useful — you don’t need one tape measure to measure windows, another to measure doors, and yet another to measure countertops. Sonic hedgehog is just like that, getting whipped out multiple times for multiple uses during development, often being used where structures need to be patterned.
Let’s dig into some of the details. I’m using the 2006 review by Ingham and Placzek for most of this summary, so if you really want to get deeper into the literature, I recommend that paper as a starting point.
How do the molecules work?
Hedgehog molecules are signaling proteins. What that means is that these are small molecules that in this case are secreted into the extracellular environment, where they can diffuse and bind to receptors on nearby cells and trigger changes in gene expression in the target. The specific properties of Hedgehog’s transport and diffusion can be modulated by the attachment of lipid molecules to it, which makes it a rather more flexible kind of signal.
What Hedgehog does is to activate an evolutionarily conserved pathway. Hedgehog binds to a receptor protein embedded in the membrane of cells competent to receive the signal; this receptor is called patched, or PTC for short. PTC then releases an inhibition of a cytoplasmic protein called smoothened (SMO), which then modifies the activity of glioma-associate oncogene homologues (GLI) that enter the nucleus and bind to various genes to switch them on and off. I know. The names don’t help at all. Students just have to memorize them. Here’s a short summary of the Rube Goldberg pathway involved here:
Hedgehog (HH) → Patched (PTC) → Smoothened (SMO) → GLI transcription factors → differential gene activity
For you visual thinkers, here’s a diagram. First, the inactive state, in which no Hedgehog is around:
See? Just like I told you, only more complicated. One difference: This is a diagram of a fly cell, and the fly homolog of GLI is a gene called Cubitus interruptus, or CI, which is modified in two different ways to form CIR and CIA in the diagram.
Below, the state when Hedgehog (HH) is bound to the receptor is illustrated, with the end result being a set of Hedgehog target genes being switched on. Also illustrated here is another set of proteins that facilitate HH binding, with the lovely names of Interference hedgehog (IHOG) and Brother of Interference hedgehog (BOI). Trust me, it gets more complicated the more closely you examine it.
Hedgehog as a morphogen
From the diagram above, you might think Hedgehog is limited — it can switch genes on and off. What isn’t shown is that the effect of the protein is dependent on concentration and timing — it isn’t just an on/off switch, it’s an analog switch. As anyone who has done any circuit design knows, this is incredibly useful. Just by increasing the concentration of Hedgehog — turning the dial up — you can get activation of more and more target genes, and stronger expression as well. In addition, cells respond progressively to longer exposures to Hedgehog with greater activation, adding another layer of control.
This is where the comparison to a tape measure is appropriate. Organisms can set up gradients of Hedgehog, and cells along the gradient can measure off where they are, and they switch genes on and off along that gradient in a reliable pattern. What this means is that one signal can be used to generate multiple different outputs, producing the ability to generate patterned distributions of cells. The models below illustrate the multiple ways Hedgehog is able to generate different patterns of gene expression.
Patterning the limb
One example of Hedgehog patterning is right in your hand. In early development, the limb begins as a digitless bud, a small protrusion from the body wall that only has polarity. That is, the posterior side of the bud, where the prospective pinky (digit 5) will form, has an area called the Zone of Polarizing Activity (ZPA) that secretes — you guessed it — a Hedgehog protein, specifically a vertebrate form called Sonic hedgehog. And yes, it was named after the Sega video game character. When the gene was discovered, it was identified as a member of the Hedgehog, so it was given an arbitrary name to make its affinity clear. For you Beatrix Potter fans, there is also a Tiggywinkle hedgehog.
The location of the ZPA sets up a gradient of Sonic hedgehog across the limb bud, from very high where the pinky will form, to very low where the thumb will form. Cells across the limb can read that gradient and have different patterns of gene activity turned on, which is what leads to the subsequent development of different digits.
We can also see the different ways Sonic hedgehog regulates the digits. As the diagram below illustrates, the posteriormost digits actually don’t look at concentration — their identity is set by how long they’ve been exposed to shh. The next digits are concentration dependent, and the thumb is the default state — low or no shh specifies the development of the first digit.
Patterning the nervous system
The classic place to find Sonic hedgehog expressed is the central nervous system (CNS) — this was where the importance of the gene product in vertebrate development was first identified. A structure called the floorplate, a band of cells that extends the length of the nervous system on the ventral floor, secretes Sonic hedgehog. Another band of cells, the roofplate, on top of the CNS, secretes another set of signaling molecules, the bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) (which have many more roles than simply controlling bone development — it’s too bad they weren’t named after a Nintendo sprite). These two complementary gradients of Shh and BMP generate unique molecular addresses for any cell along the dorsoventral axis, and enable the differentiation of many different cell types. This is a case of two simple inputs generating a multitude of outputs.
Hedgehog is a morphogen, a molecule that defines cell identity by its concentration, but it is also a mitogen. Mitogens regulate cell activity, so Shh can also signal adjacent cells to proliferate.
Sonic hedgehog downregulation has also been associated with some cancers, especially of the skin and brain. As you might expect, a gene that can regulate cell type and division might be implicated in errors of cell growth and identity…cancers. This gene is not just of concern in embryos, but is important in you right now for maintaining your cellular organization.
The developmental pathways in your immune system are regulated in part by Shh.
Shh is one of the key signaling molecules in generating left-right asymmetries in development. Your heart is skewed to the left and your appendix is on the right because of a pattern modulated by Hedgehog signaling.
In a role that has to be useful in getting funding from aging, balding Republicans, Shh is also important in regulating the organization of smooth muscle and endothelium in a structure that is a complicated maze of spongy tubes and smooth muscle — the penis. Abnormal Shh expression has also been found in men with erectile dysfunction.
Expect to see Sonic hedgehog and other Hedgehog family members to come up frequently in any discussion of the molecular genetics of animals — they are ubiquitous (except, strangely enough, they are absent in C. elegans) and they have utility in many roles. As I discussed yesterday, they appear in the most surprising roles, as in patterning the distribution of teeth, and seem to be expressed in almost any place where the organism is measuring out and partitioning and organizing a pattern of cell fates.
Arsic D, Beasley SW, Sullivan MJ. (2007) Switched-on Sonic hedgehog: a gene whose activity extends beyond fetal development—to oncogenesis. J Paediatr Child Health 43(6):421-3.
Crompton T, Outram SV, Hager-Theodorides AL (2007) Sonic hedgehog signalling in T-cell development and activation. Nat Rev Immunol 7(9):726-35.
Ingham PW, Placzek M (2006) Orchestrating ontogenesis: variations on a theme by sonic hedgehog. Nat Rev Genet 7(11):841-50.
McGlinn E, Tabin CJ. (2006) Mechanistic insight into how Shh patterns the vertebrate limb. Curr Opin Genet Dev 16(4):426-32.
Podlasek CA, Meroz CL, Korolis H, Tang Y, McKenna KE, McVary KT (2005) Sonic hedgehog, the penis and erectile dysfunction: a review of sonic hedgehog signaling in the penis. Curr Pharm Des 11(31):4011-27.
Salie R, Niederkofler V, Arber S. (2005) Patterning molecules; multitasking in the nervous system. Neuron 45(2):189-92.