Brn3a and Islet1 act epistatically to regulate the gene expression program of sensory differentiation.
ABSTRACT: The combinatorial expression of transcription factors frequently marks cellular identity in the nervous system, yet how these factors interact to determine specific neuronal phenotypes is not well understood. Sensory neurons of the trigeminal ganglion (TG) and dorsal root ganglia (DRG) coexpress the homeodomain transcription factors Brn3a and Islet1, and past work has revealed partially overlapping programs of gene expression downstream of these factors. Here we examine sensory development in Brn3a/Islet1 double knock-out (DKO) mice. Sensory neurogenesis and the formation of the TG and DRG occur in DKO embryos, but the DRG are dorsally displaced, and the peripheral projections of the ganglia are markedly disturbed. Sensory neurons in DKO embryos show a profound loss of all early markers of sensory subtypes, including the Ntrk neurotrophin receptors, and the runt-family transcription factors Runx1 and Runx3. Examination of global gene expression in the E12.5 DRG of single and double mutant embryos shows that Brn3a and Islet1 are together required for nearly all aspects of sensory-specific gene expression, including several newly identified sensory markers. On a majority of targets, Brn3a and Islet1 exhibit negative epistasis, in which the effects of the individual knock-out alleles are less than additive in the DKO. Smaller subsets of targets exhibit positive epistasis, or are regulated exclusively by one factor. Brn3a/Islet1 double mutants also fail to developmentally repress neurogenic bHLH genes, and in vivo chromatin immunoprecipitation shows that Islet1 binds to a known Brn3a-regulated enhancer in the neurod4 gene, suggesting a mechanism of interaction between these genes.