Human pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) are a promising cell resource for various applications in regenerative medicine. Highly efficient approaches that differentiate human PSCs into functional lineage-specific neurons are critical for modeling neurological disorders and testing potential therapies. Proneural transcription factors are crucial drivers of neuron development and hold promise for driving highly efficient neuronal conversion in PSCs. Here, we study the functions of proneural transcription factor Atoh1 in the neuronal differentiation of PSCs. We show that Atoh1 is induced during the neuronal conversion of PSCs and that ectopic Atoh1 expression is sufficient to drive PSCs into neurons with high efficiency. Atoh1 induction, in combination with cell extrinsic factors, differentiates PSCs into functional dopaminergic (DA) neurons with >80% purity. Atoh1-induced DA neurons recapitulate key biochemical and electrophysiological features of midbrain DA neurons, the degeneration of which is responsible for clinical symptoms in Parkinson's disease (PD). Atoh1-induced DA neurons provide a reliable disease model for studying PD pathogenesis, such as neurotoxin-induced neurodegeneration in PD. Overall, our results determine the role of Atoh1 in regulating neuronal differentiation and neuron subtype specification of human PSCs. Our Atoh1-mediated differentiation approach will enable large-scale applications of PD patient-derived midbrain DA neurons in mechanistic studies and drug screening for both familial and sporadic PD.
Keywords: Basic helix-loop-helix transcription factors; Embryonic stem cells; Induced pluripotent stem cells; Parkinson’s disease; Tet-On.