Cranial sensory placodes derive from discrete patches of the head ectoderm and give rise to numerous sensory structures. During gastrulation, a specialized "neural border zone" forms around the neural plate in response to interactions between the neural and nonneural ectoderm and signals from adjacent mesodermal and/or endodermal tissues. This zone subsequently gives rise to two distinct precursor populations of the peripheral nervous system: the neural crest and the preplacodal ectoderm (PPE). The PPE is a common field from which all cranial sensory placodes arise (adenohypophyseal, olfactory, lens, trigeminal, epibranchial, otic). Members of the Six family of transcription factors are major regulators of PPE specification, in partnership with cofactor proteins such as Eya. Six gene activity also maintains tissue boundaries between the PPE, neural crest, and epidermis by repressing genes that specify the fates of those adjacent ectodermally derived domains. As the embryo acquires anterior-posterior identity, the PPE becomes transcriptionally regionalized, and it subsequently becomes subdivided into specific placodes with distinct developmental fates in response to signaling from adjacent tissues. Each placode is characterized by a unique transcriptional program that leads to the differentiation of highly specialized cells, such as neurosecretory cells, sensory receptor cells, chemosensory neurons, peripheral glia, and supporting cells. In this review, we summarize the transcriptional and signaling factors that regulate key steps of placode development, influence subsequent sensory neuron specification, and discuss what is known about mutations in some of the essential PPE genes that underlie human congenital syndromes.
Keywords: Branchio-otic syndrome; Branchio-otic-renal syndrome; Cranial sensory neurons; Epibranchial; Eya; Olfactory; Pax; Six1; Six4; Trigeminal.
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