Pietri, T., Manalo, E., Ryan, J., Saint-Amant, L., and Washbourne, P. (2009) Glutamate drives the touch response through a rostral loop in the spinal cord of zebrafish embryos. Developmental Neurobiology. 69(12):780-795.
Characterizing connectivity in the spinal cord of zebrafish embryos is not only prerequisite to understanding the development of locomotion, but is also necessary for maximizing the potential of genetic studies of circuit formation in this model system. During their first day of development, zebrafish embryos show two simple motor behaviors. First, they coil their trunks spontaneously, and a few hours later they start responding to touch with contralateral coils. These behaviors are contemporaneous until spontaneous coils become infrequent by 30 h. Glutamatergic neurons are distributed throughout the embryonic spinal cord, but their contribution to these early motor behaviors in immature zebrafish is still unclear. We demonstrate that the kinetics of spontaneous coiling and touch-evoked responses show distinct developmental time courses and that the touch response is dependent on AMPA-type glutamate receptor activation. Transection experiments suggest that the circuits required for touch-evoked responses are confined to the spinal cord and that only the most rostral part of the spinal cord is sufficient for triggering the full response. This rostral sensory connection is presumably established via CoPA interneurons, as they project to the rostral spinal cord. Electrophysiological analysis demonstrates that these neurons receive short latency AMPA-type glutamatergic inputs in response to ipsilateral tactile stimuli. We conclude that touch responses in early embryonic zebrafish arise only after glutamatergic synapses connect sensory neurons and interneurons to the contralateral motor network via a rostral loop. This helps define an elementary circuit that is modified by the addition of sensory inputs, resulting in behavioral transformation.