Our present day understanding of nervous system development is an amalgam of insights gained from studying different aspects and stages of nervous system development in a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate model systems, with each model system making its own distinctive set of contributions. One aspect of nervous system development that has been among the most extensively studied in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is the nature of the gene regulatory programs that specify hardwired, terminal cellular identities. I first summarize a number of maps (anatomical, functional, and molecular) that describe the terminal identity of individual neurons in the C. elegans nervous system. I then provide a comprehensive summary of regulatory factors that specify terminal identities in the nervous system, synthesizing these past studies into a regulatory map of cellular identities in the C. elegans nervous system. This map shows that for three quarters of all neurons in the C. elegans nervous system, regulatory factors that control terminal identity features are known. In-depth studies of specific neuron types have revealed that regulatory factors rarely act alone, but rather act cooperatively in neuron-type specific combinations. In most cases examined so far, distinct, biochemically unlinked terminal identity features are coregulated via cooperatively acting transcription factors, termed terminal selectors, but there are also cases in which distinct identity features are controlled in a piecemeal fashion by independent regulatory inputs. The regulatory map also illustrates that identity-defining transcription factors are reemployed in distinct combinations in different neuron types. However, the same transcription factor can drive terminal differentiation in neurons that are unrelated by lineage, unrelated by function, connectivity and neurotransmitter deployment. Lastly, the regulatory map illustrates the preponderance of homeodomain transcription factors in the control of terminal identities, suggesting that these factors have ancient, phylogenetically conserved roles in controlling terminal neuronal differentiation in the nervous system. WIREs Dev Biol 2016, 5:474-498. doi: 10.1002/wdev.233 For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.
© 2016 The Authors. WIREs Developmental Biology published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.