Morphogen gradients provide positional information during development. To uncover the minimal requirements for morphogen gradient formation, we have engineered a synthetic morphogen in Drosophila wing primordia. We show that an inert protein, green fluorescent protein (GFP), can form a detectable diffusion-based gradient in the presence of surface-associated anti-GFP nanobodies, which modulate the gradient by trapping the ligand and limiting leakage from the tissue. We next fused anti-GFP nanobodies to the receptors of Dpp, a natural morphogen, to render them responsive to extracellular GFP. In the presence of these engineered receptors, GFP could replace Dpp to organize patterning and growth in vivo. Concomitant expression of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored nonsignaling receptors further improved patterning, to near-wild-type quality. Theoretical arguments suggest that GPI anchorage could be important for these receptors to expand the gradient length scale while at the same time reducing leakage.
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