Neuromuscular synapses mediate motor axon branching and motoneuron survival during the embryonic period of programmed cell death

Dev Biol. 2003 May 1;257(1):71-84. doi: 10.1016/s0012-1606(03)00056-3.


The embryonic period of motoneuron programmed cell death (PCD) is marked by transient motor axon branching, but the role of neuromuscular synapses in regulating motoneuron number and axonal branching is not known. Here, we test whether neuromuscular synapses are required for the quantitative association between reduced skeletal muscle contraction, increased motor neurite branching, and increased motoneuron survival. We achieved this by comparing agrin and rapsyn mutant mice that lack acetylcholine receptor (AChR) clusters. There were significant reductions in nerve-evoked skeletal muscle contraction, increases in intramuscular axonal branching, and increases in spinal motoneuron survival in agrin and rapsyn mutant mice compared with their wild-type littermates at embryonic day 18.5 (E18.5). The maximum nerve-evoked skeletal muscle contraction was reduced a further 17% in agrin mutants than in rapsyn mutants. This correlated to an increase in motor axon branch extension and number that was 38% more in agrin mutants than in rapsyn mutants. This suggests that specializations of the neuromuscular synapse that ensure efficient synaptic transmission and muscle contraction are also vital mediators of motor axon branching. However, these increases in motor axon branching did not correlate with increases in motoneuron survival when comparing agrin and rapsyn mutants. Thus, agrin-induced synaptic specializations are required for skeletal muscle to effectively control motoneuron numbers during embryonic development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agrin / deficiency
  • Agrin / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Cell Survival / physiology
  • Embryo, Mammalian / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscle Proteins / deficiency
  • Muscle Proteins / metabolism
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology*
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / deficiency
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / metabolism


  • Agrin
  • Muscle Proteins
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • peripheral membrane protein 43K