Fluorescent lipophilic dyes are an ideal tool to study axonal pathfinding. Because these dyes do not require active axonal transport for their spreading, they can be used in fixed tissue. Here, we describe the method we have used to study the molecular mechanisms of commissural axon pathfinding in the embryonic chicken spinal cord in vivo. Based on in vitro studies, different families of molecules had been suggested to play a role in the guidance of developing axons. In order to test their function in vivo, we used the commissural neurons that are located at the dorsolateral border of the chicken spinal cord as a model system [Stoeckli and Landmesser (1995) Neuron 14:1165-1179]. Axonin-1, NgCAM, and NrCAM, three members of the immunoglobulin (Ig) superfamily of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), were shown to be important for the correct growth pattern of commissural axons. We studied the effect of perturbations of specific CAM/CAM interactions by injection of function-blocking antibodies into the central canal of the spinal cord in ovo. After 2 days, the embryos were sacrificed and fluorescent tracers, such as Fast-DiI, were used to visualize commissural axons, and thus, to analyze their response to these perturbations in two different types of fixed preparations: transverse vibratome sections and whole-mount preparations of the spinal cord. Both pathfinding errors and defasciculation of axons were observed as a result of the perturbation of CAM/CAM interactions.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.