The ability to direct gene expression to specific cell types in space and time is an important goal for regenerative medicine. For example, to treat dorsal spinal chord injuries one may wish to direct differentiating stem cells to assume sensory or neural crest fates under the control of local inductive signals such as Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs). BMPs play a highly conserved role during neural induction to establish the dorsal-ventral (DV) axis and to distinguish epidermal from central nervous system cell fates. Subsequently, BMPs determine cell fates within dorsal regions of the spinal chord, where they act via highly conserved effector genes. In Drosophila and vertebrates alike, dorsal cells of the CNS form along the border of the BMP producing epidermis and express the Msx1 transcription factor (msh in flies), while other transcription factors Pax6 and Gsh (ind in flies) and Nkx2.2 (vn in flies) are expressed respectively in lateral and ventral domains of the CNS. These conserved "neural identity" genes determine the fates of cells in which they are expressed, but may be regulated differently by BMPs in flies and vertebrates. Thus, in flies, genetic data indicate that BMPs act as they do during neural induction to repress expression ind and msh in a dose-dependent fashion. In vertebrates, however, BMPs have been proposed to positively regulate genes such as Msx1. Analysis of BMP-dependent cis-regulation of neural identity genes has broad evolutionary implications and should aid in the development of designer cis-regulator modules (CRMs) to target neuronal differentiation to specific regions of the spinal chord. In the current grant, we propose to carry out a comparative mechanistic study of CRMs controlling BMP-responsive expression of neural identity genes in Drosophila and vertebrates.
In Aim 1, we will examine the cis-regulatory basis for BMP-mediated repression of msh expression as compared to that of ind, which is more strongly repressed by BMPs. Using cutting edge imaging and quantitative methods we have developed for precisely measuring gene expression levels at single-cell resolution, we will also examine the mechanism by which the ind and msh expression domains resolve into mutually exclusive adjacent territories.
In Aim 2, we will identify and analyze vertebrate CRMs driving differential expression of neural identity genes in the neural plate/tube of zebrafish embryos. In collaboration with Shannon Fisher's group (Univ. Penn), we have recently identified zebrafish msxB and mouse Msx1 CRMs that accurately drive reporter gene expression in the dorsal CNS. We will first define minimal CRM sequences driving expression of Msx genes in the dorsal CNS and then identify BMP-responsive sequences in these minimal CRMs and mutate them. In such CRM mutants we will then ask whether reporter gene expression is lost (i.e., BMPs positively regulate CRM activity) or is expanded into the adjacent epidermal domain (i.e., BMPs repress CRM activity). We will follow a similar strategy to identify and characterize CRMs driving expression of laterally (Pax6) and ventrally (Nkx2.2.) genes.

Public Health Relevance

Morphogenetic Proteins (BMPs) play a key role in establishing tissue types along the DV axis of the spinal chord. In the current extension of our studies into the mechanisms by which BMPs define cell fates, we will examine how BMPs control expression of genes defining specific cell fates in both vertebrates and invertebrates. These common molecular mechanisms may help target differentiation of stem cells to regenerate damaged regions of the spinal chord and should also have broad implications for neurological disorders such as neurodegenerative conditions, and mental retardation, as well as developmental disorders, immune dysfunction, and cancer, which also are controlled by BMP signaling.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
High Priority, Short Term Project Award (R56)
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Neurogenesis and Cell Fate Study Section (NCF)
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Owens, David F
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University of California San Diego
Schools of Arts and Sciences
La Jolla
United States
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Esteves, Francisco F; Springhorn, Alexander; Kague, Erika et al. (2014) BMPs regulate msx gene expression in the dorsal neuroectoderm of Drosophila and vertebrates by distinct mechanisms. PLoS Genet 10:e1004625