Investigation of serotonergic neuronal activity and its relationship to disease has been limited by a lack of physiologically relevant in vitro cell models. Serotonergic neurons derived from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) could provide a platform for such studies and provide models for use in drug discovery. Here, we report enhancement of serotonergic differentiation using a genetic approach. Expression of Gata2 increased the yield of serotonergic neurons. Enhancement was only achieved when Gata2 was expressed under the control of the tissue-specific promoter of the transcription factor Nkx6.1. High levels of Gata2 expression in ESCs compromised pluripotency and induced non-neuronal differentiation. Combined directed expression of Gata2, proneural gene Mash1, and forkhead transcription factor Foxa2 further enhanced serotonergic neural differentiation, resulting in a 10-fold increase in serotonin content. These neurons were also capable of depolarization (KCl, 30 mM)-induced elevations of intracellular Ca(2+) . The presence of sonic hedgehog during differentiation produced a further modest increase in numbers (1.5-fold). Transgene expression did not influence the number of tyrosine hydroxylase positive neurons in the cultures after 20 days, implying that Gata2, Mash1, and Foxa2 modulate in vitro differentiation at a time beyond the decision-point for dopaminergic or nondopaminergic commitment. This study demonstrates that the directed expression of specific transcription factors enhances serotonergic neuron differentiation in vitro and highlights the importance of transgene expression at the right stage of ESC differentiation to effect the generation of a desired neural subtype.
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