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The formation of the sensory organs and cells that make up the peripheral nervous system (PNS) relies on the activity of transcription factors encoded by proneural genes (PNGs). Although PNGs have been identified in the nervous systems of both vertebrates and invertebrates, the complexity of their interactions has complicated efforts to understand their function in the context of their underlying regulatory networks. To gain insight into the regulatory network of PNG activity in chordates, we investigated the roles played by PNG homologs in regulating PNS development of the invertebrate chordate Ciona intestinalis. We discovered that in Ciona, MyT1, Pou4, Atonal, and NeuroD-like are expressed in a sequential regulatory cascade in the developing epidermal sensory neurons (ESNs) of the PNS and act downstream of Notch signaling, which negatively regulates these genes and the number of ESNs along the tail midlines. Transgenic embryos mis-expressing any of these proneural genes in the epidermis produced ectopic midline ESNs. In transgenic embryos mis-expressing Pou4, and MyT1 to a lesser extent, numerous ESNs were produced outside of the embryonic midlines. In addition we found that the microRNA miR-124, which inhibits Notch signaling in ESNs, is activated downstream of all the proneural factors we tested, suggesting that these genes operate collectively in a regulatory network. Interestingly, these factors are encoded by the same genes that have recently been demonstrated to convert fibroblasts into neurons. Our findings suggest the ascidian PNS can serve as an in vivo model to study the underlying regulatory mechanisms that enable the conversion of cells into sensory neurons. Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


W Joyce Tang, Jerry S Chen, Robert W Zeller. Transcriptional regulation of the peripheral nervous system in Ciona intestinalis. Developmental biology. 2013 Jun 15;378(2):183-93

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PMID: 23545329

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