The Eph family of receptor tyrosine kinases and their ligands, the ephrins, are important regulators of axon guidance and cell migration in the developing nervous system. Inactivation of the EphA4 gene results in axon guidance defects of the corticospinal tract, a major descending motor pathway that originates in the cortex and terminates at all levels of the spinal cord. In this investigation, we report that although the initial development of the corticospinal projection is normal through the cortex, internal capsule, cerebral peduncle, and medulla in the brain of EphA4 deficient animals, corticospinal axons exhibit gross abnormalities when they enter the gray matter of the spinal cord. Notably, many corticospinal axons fail to remain confined to one side of the spinal cord during development and instead, aberrantly project across the midline, terminating ipsilateral to their cells of origin. Given the possible repulsive interactions between EphA4 and one of its ligands, ephrinB3, this defect could be consistent with a loss of responsiveness by corticospinal axons to ephrinB3 that is expressed at the spinal cord midline. Furthermore, we show that EphA4 deficient animals exhibit ventral displacement of the mature corticospinal termination pattern, suggesting that developing corticospinal axons, which may also express ephrinB3, fail to be repelled from areas of high EphA4 expression in the intermediate zone of the normal spinal cord. Taken together, these results suggest that the dual expression of EphA4 on corticospinal axons and also within the surrounding gray matter is very important for the correct development and termination of the corticospinal projection within the spinal cord.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.