The cornea is one of the most densely innervated structures of the body. In the developing chicken embryo, nerves from the ophthalmic trigeminal ganglion (OTG) innervate the cornea in a series of spatially and temporally regulated events. However, little is known concerning the signals that regulate these events. Here we have examined the involvement of the axon guidance molecules Semaphorin3A and Slit2, and their respective receptors, Neuropilin-1 and Robo2. Expression analyses of early corneas suggest an involvement of both Semaphorin3A and Slit2 in preventing nerves from entering the corneal stroma until the proper time (i.e., they serve as negative regulators), and analyses of their receptors support this conclusion. At later stages of development the expression of Semaphorin3A is again consistent with its serving as a negative regulator-this time for nerves entering the corneal epithelium. However, expression analyses of Robo2 at this stage raised the possibility that Slit2 had switched from a negative regulator to a positive regulator. In support of such a switch, functional analyses-by addition of recombinant Slit2 protein or immunoneutralization with a Slit2 antibody-showed that at an early stage Slit2 negatively regulates the outgrowth of nerves from the OTG, whereas at the later stage it positively regulated the growth of nerves by increasing nerve branching within the corneal epithelium.
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