Background Alterations in neurotransmitter phenotypes of specific neurons can cause imbalances in excitation and inhibition in the central nervous system (CNS), leading to diseases. Therefore, the correct specification and maintenance of neurotransmitter phenotypes is vital. As with other neuronal properties, neurotransmitter phenotypes are often specified and maintained by particular transcription factors. However, the specific molecular mechanisms and transcription factors that regulate neurotransmitter phenotypes remain largely unknown.
Methods In this paper we use single mutant, double mutant and transgenic zebrafish embryos to elucidate the functions of Lmx1ba and Lmx1bb in the regulation of spinal cord interneuron neurotransmitter phenotypes.
Results We demonstrate that lmx1ba and lmx1bb are both expressed in zebrafish spinal cord and that lmx1bb is expressed by both V0v cells and dI5 cells. Our functional analyses demonstrate that these transcription factors are not required for neurotransmitter fate specification at early stages of development, but that in embryos with at least two lmx1ba and/or lmx1bb mutant alleles there is a reduced number of excitatory (glutamatergic) spinal interneurons at later stages of development. In contrast, there is no change in the numbers of V0v or dI5 cells. These data suggest that lmx1b-expressing spinal neurons still form normally, but at least a subset of them lose, or do not form, their normal excitatory fates. As the reduction in glutamatergic cells is only seen at later stages of development, Lmx1b is probably required either for the maintenance of glutamatergic fates or to specify glutamatergic phenotypes of a subset of later forming neurons. Using double labeling experiments, we also show that at least some of the cells that lose their normal glutamatergic phenotype are V0v cells. Finally, we also establish that Evx1 and Evx2, two transcription factors that are required for V0v cells to acquire their excitatory neurotransmitter phenotype, are also required for lmx1ba and lmx1bb expression in these cells, suggesting that Lmx1ba and Lmx1bb act downstream of Evx1 and Evx2 in V0v cells.
Conclusions Lmx1ba and Lmx1bb function at least partially redundantly in the spinal cord and three functional lmx1b alleles are required in zebrafish for correct numbers of excitatory spinal interneurons at later developmental stages. Taken together, our data significantly enhance our understanding of how spinal cord neurotransmitter fates are regulated.