Sensory neurons of the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) respond to many different kinds of stimulus. The ability to discriminate between the diverse types of sensation is reflected by the existence of functionally and morphologically specialized sensory neurons. This neuronal diversity is created in a step-wise process extending well into postnatal life. Here, we review the hierarchical organization and the molecular process involving interactions between environmental growth factors, used and reused in different developmental contexts in self-reinforcing and cross-inhibitory mechanisms, and intrinsic gene programs that underlie the progressive diversification of sensory progenitors into specialized neurons. The recent advance in knowledge of sensory neuron specification may provide mechanistic principles that could extend to other parts of the nervous system.
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