In many regions of the nervous system, the combinatorial action of transcriptional factors specifies the individual fate of neuronal subtypes. Contrary to this, we report that a single transcriptional factor controls a phenotype shared by different subtypes of neurons, namely the expression of a neurotrophic factor receptor in the spinal cord. Along the dorsoventral axis of the chick embryo spinal cord, the expression pattern of a specific receptor for glial cell line derived-neurotrophic factor (GDNF family of receptors α1: GFRα1) was related to that of two basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcriptional factors (NeuroM and Neurogenin2: Ngn2). In ovo electroporation in the chick embryo revealed that the overexpression of NeuroM alone was sufficient to induce ectopic GFRα1 expression without overt neuronal differentiation, whereas the suppression of NeuroM activity resulted in the specific loss of GFRα1 expression, indicating that NeuroM may act as a differentiation factor for GFRα1 expression. Ngn2 overexpression was also sufficient to induce precocious GFRα1 expression. However, the forced expression of both obligate suppressor and activator forms of Ngn2 also induced aberrant GFRα1 expression. Thus, any deviation from an optimum level of Ngn2 expression resulted in aberrant GFRα1 expression. Consistent with this, manipulation of Ngn2 expression levels by other bHLH factors also resulted in ectopic GFRα1 expression. For example, the downregulation by Ascl1 and the upregulation by Ptf1a induced ectopic GFRα1 expression, irrespective of endogenous expression patterns of Ascl1 and Ptf1a (Ascl1/Ptf1) in the spinal cord. The suppression of Ascl1/Ptf1a activities abolished Ngn2 and GFRα1 expression, even in Ascl1/Ptf1a-negative regions. These data indicate the presence of a distinct regulatory sequence for a determinant of GFRα1 expression, in which Ascl1/Ptf1a may competitively intervene to stochastically modulate default Ngn2 expression levels. Thus, Ngn2 together with NeuroM serves as readout to regulate GFRα1 expression, which occurs in multiple subtypes of spinal neurons.
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