Background For neurons to function correctly in neuronal circuitry they must utilize appropriate neurotransmitters. However, even though neurotransmitter specificity is one of the most important and defining properties of a neuron we still do not fully understand how neurotransmitter fates are specified during development. Most neuronal properties are determined by the transcription factors that neurons express as they start to differentiate. While we know a few transcription factors that specify the neurotransmitter fates of particular neurons, there are still many spinal neurons for which the transcription factors specifying this critical phenotype are unknown. Strikingly, all of the transcription factors that have been identified so far as specifying inhibitory fates in the spinal cord act through Pax2. Even Tlx1 and Tlx3, which specify the excitatory fates of dI3 and dI5 spinal neurons work at least in part by down-regulating Pax2.
Methods In this paper we use single and double mutant zebrafish embryos to identify the spinal cord functions of Evx1 and Evx2.
Results We demonstrate that Evx1 and Evx2 are expressed by spinal cord V0v cells and we show that these cells develop into excitatory (glutamatergic) Commissural Ascending (CoSA) interneurons. In the absence of both Evx1 and Evx2, V0v cells still form and develop a CoSA morphology. However, they lose their excitatory fate and instead express markers of a glycinergic fate. Interestingly, they do not express Pax2, suggesting that they are acquiring their inhibitory fate through a novel Pax2-independent mechanism.
Conclusions Evx1 and Evx2 are required, partially redundantly, for spinal cord V0v cells to become excitatory (glutamatergic) interneurons. These results significantly increase our understanding of the mechanisms of neuronal specification and the genetic networks involved in these processes.