Background: Whereas multiple basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) genes are expressed in the developing nervous system, they account for the differentiation of only subsets of neurones, suggesting that there may be as-yet unidentified bHLH genes.
Results: We have isolated a novel bHLH gene, designated Math6, a distant mammalian homologue of the Drosophila proneural gene atonal. Structural analysis of the Math6 gene demonstrated that the coding region is divided into three exons, whereas that of other atonal homologues is present in a single exon, indicating that the genomic structure of Math6 is unique among the atonal homologues. Math6 is initially expressed by neural precursor cells in the ventricular zone, but later by subsets of differentiating and mature neurones such as hippocampal neurones and cerebellar Purkinje cells. Mis-expression of Math6 with retrovirus in the developing retina induced neurogenesis, while inhibiting gliogenesis, without affecting cell proliferation and death.
Conclusions: These results show that cells which would normally differentiate into glia adopted the neuronal fate by mis-expression of Math6, indicating that Math6 promotes neuronal vs. glial fate determination in the nervous system.