Background The multiplex, lattice mosaic of cone photoreceptors in the adult fish retina is a compelling example of a highly ordered epithelial cell pattern, with single cell width rows and columns of cones and precisely defined neighbor relationships among different cone types. Cellular mechanisms patterning this multiplex mosaic are not understood. Physical models can provide new insights into fundamental mechanisms of biological patterning. In earlier work, we developed a mathematical model of photoreceptor cell packing in the zebrafish retina, which predicted that anisotropic mechanical tension in the retinal epithelium orients planar polarized adhesive interfaces to align the columns as cone photoreceptors are generated at the retinal margin during post-embryonic growth.
Methods With cell-specific fluorescent reporters and in vivo imaging of the growing retinal margin in transparent juvenile zebrafish we provide the first view of how cell packing, spatial arrangement, and cell identity are coordinated to build the lattice mosaic. With targeted laser ablation we probed the tissue mechanics of the retinal epithelium.
Results Within the lattice mosaic, planar polarized Crumbs adhesion proteins pack cones into a single cell width column; between columns, N-cadherin-mediated adherens junctions stabilize Müller glial apical processes. The concentration of activated pMyosin II at these punctate adherens junctions suggests that these glial bands are under tension, forming a physical barrier between cone columns and contributing to mechanical stress anisotropies in the epithelial sheet. Unexpectedly, we discovered that the appearance of such parallel bands of Müller glial apical processes precedes the packing of cones into single cell width columns, hinting at a possible role for glia in the initial organization of the lattice mosaic. Targeted laser ablation of Müller glia directly demonstrates that these glial processes support anisotropic mechanical tension in the planar dimension of the retinal epithelium.
Conclusions These findings uncovered a novel structural feature of Müller glia associated with alignment of photoreceptors into a lattice mosaic in the zebrafish retina. This is the first demonstration, to our knowledge, of planar, anisotropic mechanical forces mediated by glial cells.