During the first trimester of development, the neural stem and progenitor cells form a niche, or safe zone, within the nervous system. The neural stem and precursor cells adhere to each other in a way that allows them to expand their numbers and keep from differentiating. A protein called N-cadherin facilitates this adhesion, Novitch said.
When it is time for the neural precursors to become motor neurons, two proteins that repress gene expression, called Foxp2 and Foxp4, become elevated and then silence N-cadherin expression, causing the clustered neural stem and precursor cells to break apart and begin differentiating.
"We have these cells in a dividing state, making more of themselves, and to make neurons that process has to be stopped and those contacts between the cells disassembled," Novitch said. "Until now, it has not been clear how the cells are pulled apart."
Novitch and his team showed that if you eliminate Foxp protein function, motor neurons and other mature cells in the nervous system are not properly formed because the N-cadherin gene is not silenced, confirming the delicate balancing act that must be achieved for normal development of both the stem and precursor cells and their neuronal progeny.
"It's a fundamental discovery. Most studies have focused on defining what promotes the adhesiveness and self-renewal of neural stem cells, rather than what breaks these contacts," Novitch said. "We were also surprised to see how small changes in the degree of cell adhesion can markedly alter the development and structure of the nervous system. It's all about balance, if you have too many or too few stem and precursor cells, the result could be disastrous."
Going forward, Novitch and his
|Contact: Kim Irwin|
University of California - Los Angeles Health Sciences