The broad range of tissue and cellular diversity of animals is generated to a large extent by the hierarchical deployment of sequence-specific transcription factors and co-factors (collectively referred to as TF's herein) during development. Our understanding of these developmental processes has been facilitated by the recognition that the activities of many TF's can be meaningfully described by a few functional categories that usefully convey a sense for how the TF's function, and also provides a sense for the regulatory organization of the developmental processes in which they participate. Here, we draw on examples from studies in Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, and vertebrates to discuss how the terms spatial selector, temporal selector, tissue/cell type selector, terminal selector and combinatorial code may be usefully applied to categorize the activities of TF's at critical steps of nervous system construction. While we believe that these functional categories are useful for understanding the organizational principles by which TF's direct nervous system construction, we however caution against the assumption that a TF's function can be solely or fully defined by any single functional category. Indeed, most TF's play diverse roles within different functional categories, and their roles can blur the lines we draw between these categories. Regardless, it is our belief that the concepts discussed here are helpful in clarifying the regulatory complexities of nervous system development, and hope they prove useful when interpreting mutant phenotypes, designing future experiments, and programming specific neuronal cell types for use in therapies.
© 2015 The Authors. WIREs Developmental Biology published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.