Low levels of the survival motor neuron protein (SMN) cause the disease spinal muscular atrophy. A primary characteristic of this disease is motoneuron dysfunction and paralysis. Understanding why motoneurons are affected by low levels of SMN will lend insight into this disease and to motoneuron biology in general. Motoneurons in zebrafish smn mutants develop abnormally; however, it is unclear where Smn is needed for motoneuron development since it is a ubiquitously expressed protein. We have addressed this issue by expressing human SMN in motoneurons in zebrafish maternal-zygotic (mz) smn mutants. First, we demonstrate that SMN is present in axons, but only during the period of robust motor axon outgrowth. We also conclusively demonstrate that SMN acts cell autonomously in motoneurons for proper motoneuron development. This includes the formation of both axonal and dendritic branches. Analysis of the peripheral nervous system revealed that Schwann cells and dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons developed abnormally in mz-smn mutants. Schwann cells did not wrap axons tightly and had expanded nodes of Ranvier. The majority of DRG neurons had abnormally short peripheral axons and later many of them failed to divide and died. Expressing SMN just in motoneurons rescued both of these cell types showing that their failure to develop was secondary to the developmental defects in motoneurons. Driving SMN just in motoneurons did not increase survival of the animal, suggesting that SMN is needed for motoneuron development and motor circuitry, but that SMN in other cells types factors into survival.
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