Semaphorins and Plexins are cognate ligand-receptor families that regulate important steps during nervous system development. The Plexin-B2 receptor is critically involved in neural tube closure and cerebellar granule cell development, however, its specific ligands have only been suggested by in vitro studies. Here, we show by in vivo and in vitro analyses that the two Semaphorin-4 family members Sema4C and Sema4G are likely to be in vivo ligands of Plexin-B2. The Sema4C and Sema4G genes are expressed in the developing cerebellar cortex, and Sema4C and Sema4G proteins specifically bind to Plexin-B2 expressing cerebellar granule cells. To further elucidate their in vivo function, we have generated and analyzed Sema4C and Sema4G knockout mouse mutants. Like Plexin-B2-/- mutants, Sema4C-/- mutants reveal exencephaly and subsequent neonatal lethality with partial penetrance. Sema4C-/- mutants that bypass exencephaly are viable and fertile, but display distinctive defects of the cerebellar granule cell layer, including gaps in rostral lobules, fusions of caudal lobules, and ectopic granule cells in the molecular layer. In addition to neuronal defects, we observed in Sema4C-/- mutants also ventral skin pigmentation defects that are similar to those found in Plexin-B2-/- mutants. The Sema4G gene deletion causes no overt phenotype by itself, but combined deletion of Sema4C and Sema4G revealed an enhanced cerebellar phenotype. However, Sema4C/Sema4G double mutants showed overall less severe cerebellar phenotypes than Plexin-B2-/- mutants, indicating that further ligands of Plexin-B2 exist. In explant cultures of the developing cerebellar cortex, Sema4C promoted migration of cerebellar granule cell precursors in a Plexin-B2-dependent manner, supporting the model that a reduced migration rate of granule cell precursors is the basis for the cerebellar defects of Sema4C-/- and Sema4C/Sema4G mutants.
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