During nervous system development, postmitotic neurons face the challenge of generating and structurally organizing specific synapses with appropriate synaptic partners. An important unexplored question is whether the process of synaptogenesis is coordinated with the adoption of specific signaling properties of a neuron. Such signaling properties are defined by the neurotransmitter system that a neuron uses to communicate with postsynaptic partners, the neurotransmitter receptor type used to receive input from presynaptic neurons, and, potentially, other sensory receptors that activate a neuron. Elucidating the mechanisms that coordinate synaptogenesis, neuronal activation, and neurotransmitter signaling in a postmitotic neuron represents one key approach to understanding how neurons develop as functional units. Using the SAB class of Caenorhabditis elegans motor neurons as a model system, we show here that the phylogenetically conserved COE-type transcription factor UNC-3 is required for synaptogenesis. UNC-3 directly controls the expression of the ADAMTS-like protein MADD-4/Punctin, a presynaptically secreted synapse-organizing molecule that clusters postsynaptic receptors. UNC-3 also controls the assembly of presynaptic specializations and ensures the coordinated expression of enzymes and transporters that define the cholinergic neurotransmitter identity of the SAB neurons. Furthermore, synaptic output properties of the SAB neurons are coordinated with neuronal activation and synaptic input, as evidenced by UNC-3 also regulating the expression of ionotropic neurotransmitter receptors and putative stretch receptors. Our study shows how synaptogenesis and distinct, function-defining signaling features of a postmitotic neuron are hardwired together through coordinated transcriptional control.
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