Specific neuronal types derived from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can facilitate mechanistic studies and potentially aid in regenerative medicine. Existing induction methods, however, mostly rely on the effects of the combined action of multiple added growth factors, which generally tend to result in mixed populations of neurons. Here, we report that overexpression of specific transcription factors (TFs) in ESCs can rather guide the differentiation of ESCs towards specific neuron lineages. Analysis of data on gene expression changes 2 d after induction of each of 185 TFs implicated candidate TFs for further ESC differentiation studies. Induction of 23 TFs (out of 49 TFs tested) for 6 d facilitated neural differentiation of ESCs as inferred from increased proportion of cells with neural progenitor marker PSA-NCAM. We identified early activation of the Notch signaling pathway as a common feature of most potent inducers of neural differentiation. The majority of neuron-like cells generated by induction of Ascl1, Smad7, Nr2f1, Dlx2, Dlx4, Nr2f2, Barhl2, and Lhx1 were GABA-positive and expressed other markers of GABAergic neurons. In the same way, we identified Lmx1a and Nr4a2 as inducers for neurons bearing dopaminergic markers and Isl1, Fezf2, and St18 for cholinergic motor neurons. A time-course experiment with induction of Ascl1 showed early upregulation of most neural-specific messenger RNA (mRNA) and microRNAs (miRNAs). Sets of Ascl1-induced mRNAs and miRNAs were enriched in Ascl1 targets. In further studies, enrichment of cells obtained with the induction of Ascl1, Smad7, and Nr2f1 using microbeads resulted in essentially pure population of neuron-like cells with expression profiles similar to neural tissues and expressed markers of GABAergic neurons. In summary, this study indicates that induction of transcription factors is a promising approach to generate cultures that show the transcription profiles characteristic of specific neural cell types.
Keywords: Ascl1; Cholinergic neurons; Dopaminergic neurons; ESCs; GABAergic neurons; Gene expression profiling; miRNA.