Mammalian skin is innervated by diverse, unmyelinated C fibers that are associated with senses of pain, itch, temperature, or touch. A key developmental question is how this neuronal cell diversity is generated during development. We reported previously that the runt domain transcription factor Runx1 is required to coordinate the development of these unmyelinated cutaneous sensory neurons, including VGLUT3(+) low-threshold c-mechanoreceptors (CLTMs), MrgprD(+) polymodal nociceptors, MrgprA3(+) pruriceptors, MrgprB4(+) c-mechanoreceptors, and others. However, how these Runx1-dependent cutaneous sensory neurons are further segregated is poorly illustrated. Here, we find that the Runx1-dependent transcription factor gene Zfp521 is expressed in, and required for establishing molecular features that define, VGLUT3(+) CLTMs. Furthermore, Runx1 and Zfp521 form a classic incoherent feedforward loop (I-FFL) in controlling molecular identities that normally belong to MrgprD(+) neurons, with Runx1 and Zfp51 playing activator and repressor roles, respectively (in genetic terms). A knock-out of Zfp521 allows prospective VGLUT3 lineage neurons to acquire MrgprD(+) neuron identities. Furthermore, Runx1 might form other I-FFLs to regulate the expression of MrgprA3 and MrgprB4, a mechanism preventing these genes from being expressed in Runx1-persistent VGLUT3(+) and MrgprD(+) neurons. The evolvement of these I-FFLs provides an explanation for how modality-selective sensory subtypes are formed during development and may also have intriguing implications for sensory neuron evolution and sensory coding.
Keywords: Runx1; Zfp521; low-threshold c-mechanoreceptors; nociceptors; pruriceptors; sensory subtype specification.
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