Purpose: Photoreceptor differentiation involves the activation of two specific sets of genes; those encoding the proteins of the phototransduction cascade and those encoding the enzymes of the melatonin synthesis pathway, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AANAT) and hydroxyindole O-methyltransferase (HIOMT). The purpose of the present study was to examine the conditions of AANAT and HIOMT gene activation, relative to that of selected phototransduction markers (alpha-transducin and opsins), in both in vivo and in vitro differentiating photoreceptors of the chicken retina.
Methods: Neural retina RNA was obtained between embryonic day 7 (E7) and posthatch day 8 (P8) and analyzed on northern blots with cDNA probes to AANAT, HIOMT, visinin, alpha-transducin, rhodopsin, and the four cone opsins. Cell cultures were prepared from E7 chicken neural retina and incubated for two to four days in vitro, either in basal medium or in serum-supplemented medium or in medium containing an insulin-based supplement. RNA from the cultured cells was analyzed on northern blots as above. Real time RT-PCR was used to confirm in vitro changes in HIOMT and red opsin mRNA levels. The cultured cells were transfected with promoter-reporter plasmids for direct analysis of HIOMT promoter regulation by the dual luciferase method.
Results: The different mRNAs composing the photoreceptor phenotype appeared at E7 (visinin), E10 (alpha-transducin), E14 (HIOMT), E15 (rhodopsin, red opsin, and green opsin), E16 (AANAT), E17 (blue opsin), and E18 (violet opsin). In the early differentiating cones of the central retina, HIOMT mRNA appeared two days earlier than red opsin and green opsin mRNAs (E12 rather than E14). In cultured embryonic neural retina cells, basal medium was sufficient to activate alpha-transducin gene transcription, an insulin-based supplement was sufficient to activate HIOMT gene transcription, whereas serum was required for red opsin gene transcription after two days in vitro. All serum batches were able to activate red opsin gene transcription, whereas some of them failed to activate HIOMT gene transcription. Activation of the HIOMT gene promoter by an insulin-based supplement and by serum was confirmed after transfection of chicken embryonic neural retina cells with promoter-reporter plasmids.
Conclusions: Activation of the melatonin synthesis genes in vivo takes place in a time window very close to that of early opsins. However, a 24-48 h lead of HIOMT gene expression over early opsins was clearly observed. Our in vitro experiments indicate that different exogenous signals are required to activate the different genes encoding photoreceptor specific functions. Significantly, marker genes for light sensitivity (red opsin) and for melatonin synthesis (HIOMT) appear to be activated in response to different signals.