Many distinct regulatory factors have been shown to be required for the proper initiation of neuron-type-specific differentiation programs, but much less is known about the regulatory programs that maintain the differentiated state in the adult [1-3]. One possibility is that regulatory factors that initiate a terminal differentiation program during development are continuously required to maintain the differentiated state. Here, we test this hypothesis by investigating the function of two orthologous POU homeobox genes in nematodes and mice. The C. elegans POU homeobox gene unc-86 is a terminal selector that is required during development to initiate the terminal differentiation program of several distinct neuron classes [4-13]. Through post-developmental removal of unc-86 activity, we show here that unc-86 is also continuously required throughout the life of many neuron classes to maintain neuron-class-specific identity features. Similarly, the mouse unc-86 ortholog Brn3a/POU4F1 has been shown to control the initiation of the terminal differentiation program of distinct neuron types across the mouse brain, such as the medial habenular neurons [14-20]. By conditionally removing Brn3a in the adult mouse central nervous system, we show that, like its invertebrate ortholog unc-86, Brn3a is also required for the maintenance of terminal identity features of medial habenular neurons. In addition, Brn3a is required for the survival of these neurons, indicating that identity maintenance and survival are genetically linked. We conclude that the continuous expression of transcription factors is essential for the active maintenance of the differentiated state of a neuron across phylogeny.
Keywords: BRN3A; C. elegans; POU4F1; UNC-86; maintenance; medial habenula; neuronal identity; transcription factors; triangular septum.
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