The anchor cell/ventral uterine precursor cell (AC/VU) decision in Caenorhabditis elegans is a canonical example of lin-12/Notch-mediated lateral specification. Two initially equivalent cells interact via the receptor LIN-12 and its ligand LAG-2, so that one becomes the AC and the other a VU. During this interaction, feedback loops amplify a small difference in lin-12 activity, limiting lin-12 transcription to the presumptive VU and lag-2 transcription to the presumptive AC. Here, we find that hlh-2 appears to be required for the VU fate and directly activates lag-2 transcription in the presumptive AC. HLH-2 appears to accumulate selectively in the presumptive AC prior to differential transcription of lin-12 or lag-2, and is therefore the earliest detectable difference between the two cells undergoing the AC/VU decision. The restricted accumulation of HLH-2 to the presumptive AC reflects post-transcriptional down-regulation of HLH-2 in the presumptive VU. Our observations suggest that hlh-2 is regulated as part of the negative feedback that down-regulates lag-2 transcription in the presumptive VU. Finally, we show that the AC/VU decision in an individual hermaphrodite is biased by the relative birth order of the two cells, so that the first-born cell is more likely to become the VU. We propose models to suggest how birth order, HLH-2 accumulation, and transcription of lag-2 may be linked during the AC/VU decision.
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