To become and remain functional, individual neuron types must select during development and maintain throughout life their distinct terminal identity features, such as expression of specific neurotransmitter receptors, ion channels and neuropeptides. Here, we report a molecular mechanism that enables cholinergic motor neurons (MNs) in the C. elegans ventral nerve cord to select and maintain their unique terminal identity. This mechanism relies on the dual function of the conserved terminal selector UNC-3 (Collier/Ebf). UNC-3 synergizes with LIN-39 (Scr/Dfd/Hox4-5) to directly co-activate multiple terminal identity traits specific to cholinergic MNs, but also antagonizes LIN-39's ability to activate terminal features of alternative neuronal identities. Loss of unc-3 causes a switch in the transcriptional targets of LIN-39, thereby alternative, not cholinergic MN-specific, terminal features become activated and locomotion defects occur. The strategy of a terminal selector preventing a transcriptional switch may constitute a general principle for safeguarding neuronal identity throughout life.
Keywords: C. elegans; Hox proteins; UNC-3/Collier/Ebf; developmental biology; neuronal identity; neuroscience; terminal selectors; transcription factors.
© 2020, Feng et al.