The establishment of correct neurotransmitter characteristics is an essential step of neuronal fate specification in CNS development. However, very little is known about how a battery of genes involved in the determination of a specific type of chemical-driven neurotransmission is coordinately regulated during vertebrate development. Here, we investigated the gene regulatory networks that specify the cholinergic neuronal fates in the spinal cord and forebrain, specifically, spinal motor neurons (MNs) and forebrain cholinergic neurons (FCNs). Conditional inactivation of Isl1, a LIM homeodomain factor expressed in both differentiating MNs and FCNs, led to a drastic loss of cholinergic neurons in the developing spinal cord and forebrain. We found that Isl1 forms two related, but distinct types of complexes, the Isl1-Lhx3-hexamer in MNs and the Isl1-Lhx8-hexamer in FCNs. Interestingly, our genome-wide ChIP-seq analysis revealed that the Isl1-Lhx3-hexamer binds to a suite of cholinergic pathway genes encoding the core constituents of the cholinergic neurotransmission system, such as acetylcholine synthesizing enzymes and transporters. Consistently, the Isl1-Lhx3-hexamer directly coordinated upregulation of cholinergic pathways genes in embryonic spinal cord. Similarly, in the developing forebrain, the Isl1-Lhx8-hexamer was recruited to the cholinergic gene battery and promoted cholinergic gene expression. Furthermore, the expression of the Isl1-Lhx8-complex enabled the acquisition of cholinergic fate in embryonic stem cell-derived neurons. Together, our studies show a shared molecular mechanism that determines the cholinergic neuronal fate in the spinal cord and forebrain, and uncover an important gene regulatory mechanism that directs a specific neurotransmitter identity in vertebrate CNS development.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Molecular Biology
- Cancer Research