Midbrain dopamine (MbDA) neurons are partitioned into medial and lateral cohorts that control complex functions. However, the genetic underpinnings of MbDA neuron heterogeneity are unclear. While it is known that Wnt1-expressing progenitors contribute to MbDA neurons, the role of Wnt1 in MbDA neuron development in vivo is unresolved. We show that mice with a spontaneous point mutation in Wnt1 have a unique phenotype characterized by the loss of medial MbDA neurons concomitant with a severe depletion of Wnt1-expressing progenitors and diminished LMX1a-expressing progenitors. Wnt1 mutant embryos also have alterations in a hierarchical gene regulatory loop suggesting multiple gene involvement in the Wnt1 mutant MbDA neuron phenotype. To investigate this possibility, we conditionally deleted Gbx2, Fgf8, and En1/2 after their early role in patterning and asked whether these genetic manipulations phenocopied the depletion of MbDA neurons in Wnt1 mutants. The conditional deletion of Gbx2 did not result in re-positioning or distribution of MbDA neurons. The temporal deletion of Fgf8 did not result in the loss of either LMX1a-expressing progenitors nor the initial population of differentiated MbDA neurons, but did result in a complete loss of MbDA neurons at later stages. The temporal deletion and species specific manipulation of En1/2 demonstrated a continued and species specific role of Engrailed genes in MbDA neuron development. Notably, our conditional deletion experiments revealed phenotypes dissimilar to Wnt1 mutants indicating the unique role of Wnt1 in MbDA neuron development. By placing Wnt1, Fgf8, and En1/2 in the context of their temporal requirement for MbDA neuron development, we further deciphered the developmental program underpinning MbDA neuron progenitors.
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