PHOX2A regulation of oculomotor complex nucleogenesis. Academic Article uri icon


  • Brain nuclei are spatially organized collections of neurons that share functional properties. Despite being central to vertebrate brain circuitry, little is known about how nuclei are generated during development. We have chosen the chick midbrain oculomotor complex (OMC) as a model with which to study the developmental mechanisms of nucleogenesis. The chick OMC comprises two distinct cell groups: a dorsal Edinger-Westphal nucleus of visceral oculomotor neurons and a ventral nucleus of somatic oculomotor neurons. Genetic studies in mice and humans have established that the homeobox transcription factor gene PHOX2A is required for midbrain motoneuron development. We probed, in forced expression experiments, the capacity of PHOX2A to generate a spatially organized midbrain OMC. We found that exogenous Phox2a delivery to embryonic chick midbrain can drive a complete OMC molecular program, including the production of visceral and somatic motoneurons. Phox2a overexpression was also able to generate ectopic motor nerves. The exit points of such auxiliary nerves were invested with ectopic boundary cap cells and, in four examples, the ectopic nerves were seen to innervate extraocular muscle directly. Finally, Phox2a delivery was able to direct ectopic visceral and somatic motoneurons to their correct native spatial positions, with visceral motoneurons settling close to the ventricular surface and somatic motoneurons migrating deeper into the midbrain. These findings establish that in midbrain, a single transcription factor can both specify motoneuron cell fates and orchestrate the construction of a spatially organized motoneuron nuclear complex.

publication date

  • April 2010