On the importance of protein diffusion in biological systems: The example of the Bicoid morphogen gradient
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Morphogens are proteins that form concentration gradients in embryos and developing tissues, where they act as postal codes, providing cells with positional information and allowing them to behave accordingly. Bicoid was the first discovered morphogen, and remains one of the most studied. It regulates segmentation in flies, forming a striking exponential gradient along the anterior-posterior axis of early Drosophila embryos, and activating the transcription of multiple target genes in a concentration-dependent manner. In this review, the work done by us and by others to characterize the mobility of Bicoid in D. melanogaster embryos is presented. The central role played by the diffusion of Bicoid in both the establishment of the gradient and the activation of target genes is discussed, and placed in the context of the need for these processes to be all at once rapid, precise and robust. The Bicoid system, and morphogen gradients in general, remain amongst the most amazing examples of the coexistence, often observed in living systems, of small-scale disorder and large-scale spatial order. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Biophysics in Canada, edited by Lewis Kay, John Baenziger, Albert Berghuis and Peter Tieleman.