Genetic mechanisms controlling cell specification and cell numbers in the Drosophila CNS

Abstract: A central theme in developmental neurobiology pertains to how the  diversity of different cell types is generated. In addition, it is equally important to understand how the specific numbers of each cell type is regulated. The developing Drosophila central nervous system (CNS) is a widely used system in which to study the genetic mechanisms underlying these events. Earlier studies have shown that a small number of progenitors produce the daunting number of cells that builds the mature CNS. This is accomplished by a series of events that in an increasingly restricted manner results in different combinatorial transcription factor codes that act to specify the different cell types in the CNS. However the factors controlling the progressive restriction in developmental potential and the ultimate fate of cells have not been completely elucidated.My PhD project has been focused on a specific stem cell in the embryonic Drosophila CNS, the neuroblast 5-6 (NB 5-6), and the lineage of neural cells that is produced by that stem cell. Earlier work have provided both a lot of knowledge and a multitude of genetic tools regarding this specific stem cell, which allowed us to address these issues at single cell resolution in an identifiable lineage. In particular, a late-born group of neurons expressing the apterous gene, the Apterous neurons, had been extensively studied in the past. One particular Apterous neuron, Ap4, expresses the neuropeptide gene FMRFamide (FMRFa), and the selective expression of this gene makes it a powerful marker for addressing many aspects of NB 5-6 development.To identify novel genes acting to control neuronal development, a large scale forward genetic screen was performed utilizing an FMRFa-GFP transgenic reporter construct, thereby using a marker that reports perturbations of NB 5-6-lineage development. Flies were treated with EMS, a chemical that induces random point mutations and the progeny where screened for aberrant FMRFa-GFP expression. From a total of ~ 10,000 mutated chromosomes ~600 mutants where isolated and further characterized. One group of mutants displayed additional Apterous neurons when compared to wild type, and a number of them represented new alleles of three previously known genes: neuralized (neur), kuzbanian (kuz), and seven up (svp). Neur and Kuz are parts of the Notch signaling pathway and Svp is the Drosophila COUP-TF1/2 ortholog; an orphan member of the steroid/thyroid receptor superfamily. These findings initiated two separate studies regarding the roles of these genes in the NB 5-6 lineage.Mutants in the Notch pathway i.e., neur and kuz displayed an excess number of Apterous neurons, born from NB 5-6. We initiated detailed studies regarding the origin of these ectopic neurons and could show that Notch signaling is critical for controlling a switch in proliferation mode in the latter part of the NB 5-6 lineage. With this new mechanism we could independently and simultaneously manipulate cell proliferation and temporal progression, and thereby predictable control cell fate and cell numbers born from the NB 5-6.The screen further identified additional mechanisms acting to specify the Ap cluster neurons. During NB 5-6 lineage development several temporal transitions acts to specify neurons born in different time windows. The temporal gene castor is expressed in a fairly large temporal window and the Ap neurons are sub-specified during that window by several combinatorial feed forward loops of transcription factors. In the screen, we identified a novel allele of the svp gene. We found that svp acts as a sub-temporal factor, fine-tuning the castor window into three different temporal parts. Previous studies have shown a role for svp earlier in the temporal cascade and we could confirm this in the NB 5-6 lineage. Together these data for the first time identify dual temporal roles of the same gene in a single NB lineage.In summary, my thesis has helped identify novel genetic mechanisms controlling neuron subtype specification and numbers.