- Research article
- Open Access
Pax6 regulates the formation of the habenular nuclei by controlling the temporospatial expression of Shhin the diencephalon in vertebrates
© Chatterjee et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 17 December 2013
Accepted: 11 February 2014
Published: 14 February 2014
The habenula and the thalamus are two critical nodes in the forebrain circuitry and they connect the midbrain and the cerebral cortex in vertebrates. The habenula is derived from the epithalamus and rests dorsally to the thalamus. Both epithalamus and thalamus arise from a single diencephalon segment called prosomere (p)2. Shh is expressed in the ventral midline of the neural tube and in the mid-diencephalic organizer (MDO) at the zona limitans intrathalamica between thalamus and prethalamus. Acting as a morphogen, Shh plays an important role in regulating cell proliferation and survival in the diencephalon and thalamic patterning. The molecular regulation of the MDO Shh expression and the potential role of Shh in development of the habenula remain largely unclear.
We show that deleting paired-box and homeobox-containing gene Pax6 results in precocious and expanded expression of Shh in the prospective MDO in fish and mice, whereas gain-of-function of pax6 inhibits MDO shh expression in fish. Using gene expression and genetic fate mapping, we have characterized the expression of molecular markers that demarcate the progenitors and precursors of habenular neurons. We show that the thalamic domain is shifted dorsally and the epithalamus is missing in the alar plate of p2 in the Pax6 mutant mouse. Conversely, the epithalamus is expanded ventrally at the expense of the thalamus in mouse embryos with reduced Shh activity. Significantly, attenuating Shh signaling largely rescues the patterning of p2 and restores the epithalamus in Pax6 mouse mutants, suggesting that Shh acts downstream of Pax6 in controlling the formation of the habenula. Similar to that found in the mouse, we show that pax6 controls the formation of the epithalamus mostly via the regulation of MDO shh expression in zebrafish.
Our findings demonstrate that Pax6 has an evolutionarily conserved function in establishing the temporospatial expression of Shh in the MDO in vertebrates. Furthermore, Shh mediates Pax6 function in regulating the partition of the p2 domain into the epithalamus and thalamus.
The habenula, which is a paired midline structure residing at the posterior and dorsal surface of the thalamus, is present in virtually all vertebrates. The habenula receives inputs from the forebrain limbic system and the basal ganglia through the stria medullaris and projects to the monoaminergic nuclei in the midbrain and hindbrain via the fasciculus retroflexus (FR) [1, 2]. The neural connections of the habenula imply that it plays an important role in modulating emotion, motivation and reward values. Indeed, dysfunction of the habenula has been implicated in psychiatric disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and drug-induced psychosis [2, 3]. Despite the importance of the habenula, relatively little is known about the molecular control of the specification and differentiation of this structure in vertebrates.
Based on gene expression patterns and morphological landmarks, the caudal forebrain is divided into three segments, prosomeres (p)1, 2 and 3 [4, 5]. The p1 and p3 domains generate the pretectum and prethalamus, respectively, while the alar plate of p2 produces the epithalamus and the thalamus. The epithalamus gives rise to the habenula, together with the pineal gland and choroid plexus. Using genetic fate mapping, we have recently shown that thalamic neuron precursor cells express homeobox gene Gbx2, and the Gbx2 lineage defines a sharp compartment boundary between the habenula and thalamus in the mouse embryo , demonstrating a clear segregation of habenular and thalamic neurons. In parallel, we have demonstrated that the segregation between p1 and p2 cells is regulated by the cell adhesion factor protocadherin 10b in zebrafish . However, how the epithalamus diverges from the thalamus and pretectum is largely unknown.
Sonic hedgehog (Shh) is expressed in the ventral midline of the neural tube and functions as a morphogen to control the dorsoventral patterning of the entire central nervous system [8, 9]. Uniquely, Shh is expressed in a transverse band at the border between p2 and p3, called the mid-diencephalic organizer (MDO) located at the prospective zona limitans intrathalamica (ZLI) [10, 11]. Therefore, the developing diencephalon receives Shh signals from both dorsoventral and anteroposterior directions. Experiments in chicks and zebrafish have demonstrated that Shh is the key component of the MDO that controls development of the thalamus and the prethalamus in vertebrates [12–16]. Genetic studies in mice and fish have recently shown that Shh signaling regulates the division of thalamic progenitor regions into rostral (rTh) and caudal thalamic (cTh) domains [17–20]. Enhancing Shh activity shifts the border between rTh and cTh caudally, whereas decreasing Shh signaling shifts the border anteriorly [18, 21, 22]. Interestingly, cells in the caudal area of the thalamus seem refractory to alterations of Shh activity , and the effect of changed Shh function on epithalamic development has not been characterized in detail in the previous studies.
Pax6, which encodes a transcription factor containing a paired domain and a homeodomain, is broadly expressed in the developing forebrain of vertebrates [23–25]. In the absence of Pax6, although the regionalization of the diencephalon is initially preserved, formation of the prosomere boundary and axonal projections from the thalamus are severely disrupted in mice [25–28]. The formation of the epithalamus has never been characterized in Pax6-deficient vertebrates. However, it has been reported that the pineal gland is missing or greatly reduced in people lacking a functional copy of PAX6 [29, 30], suggesting that Pax6 protein may play a crucial role in the development of the epithalamus including the habenula. Interestingly, Shh expression and perhaps its activity are enhanced at the MDO of Pax6-deficient mouse embryos at embryonic day ((E) 10.5) [26, 28]. Antagonistic interactions between Pax6 and Shh are known to play a crucial role in patterning the spinal cord and the telencephalon [8, 31]. However, it remains to be explored how Pax6-Shh interaction regulates the development of the mid-diencephalon, particularly the habenula.
The goal of this study is to investigate the molecular control of habenula development. To this end, we first analyzed the expression patterns of molecules that define different populations of habenular cells. Using these newly discovered habenular markers, we examined the genetic interactions between Pax6 and Shh in the control of habenular development. We demonstrate that Pax6 regulates the temporospatial expression of Shh at the MDO. Furthermore, Shh signaling plays a crucial role in regulating the specification of the habenula. Our results provide novel information on the development of the habenula and the MDO.
Characterization of progenitors and precursors of habenular neurons
We next analyzed genes that mark postmitotic habenular neurons. As described previously, Pou4f1 (also known as Brn3a) is specifically expressed in the habenula  (Figure 1E). Axonal guidance genes Robo3 and Neuropilin 2 (Nrp2) are expressed in the habenula [33, 34]. Transcripts of Robo3 and Nrp2 were detected in cells that emerged from the habenular progenitor domain marked by Dbx1 and Wnt7b (Figure 1C-G). Etv1, which encodes a member of the ETS family of transcription factors, is expressed in the prospective habenula at E14.5 . At E12.5, Etv1 transcripts were detected in cells residing between the lateral-most area that was positive for Pou4f1, Robo3 and Nrp2 and the Dbx1 + /Wnt7b + VZ (Figure 1H). Although it has been suggested that Bhlhe23 (previously called Bhlhb4) is expressed in the area caudal and dorsal to the thalamus including the epithalamus , Bhlhe23 transcripts were mainly found in the lateral wall of the pretectum residing in an area dorsal and caudal to the Pou4f1+ domain (Figure 1E,I). Furthermore, the Bhlhe23+ domain was positioned parallel but more lateral to the expression domain of Pax3, which demarcates the pretectal VZ (Figure 1I and inset) [36, 37].
To forge the link between the gene expression pattern in the embryo and the mature habenular nuclei after birth, we performed genetic fate mapping to examine the developmental fate of Etv1-expressing cells in the mouse embryo. We crossed the Etv1 creER knock-in mouse strain (JAX013048) and a cre-reporter line, R26R RFP , in which robust red fluorescence protein (RFP) will be permanently expressed upon cre-mediated excision of a STOP cassette flanked by two loxP sequences upstream of a cDNA encoding tdTomato RFP . No RFP-labeled cells were detected in Etv1 creER/+ ; R26R RFP/+ embryos that did not receive tamoxifen (data not shown), demonstrating that creER-mediated recombination is dependent on tamoxifen administration. To label Etv1-expressing cells, we administered tamoxifen to time-pregnant females carrying Etv1 creER/+ ; R26R RFP/+ embryos, and examined the distribution of RFP-labeled cells at postnatal day (P) 0 and 22. In the caudal forebrain, descendants of Etv1-expressing cells labeled at E12.5 were mostly found in the medial habenular nuclei, which were delineated by Pou4f1 immunoreactivity, in Etv1 creER/+ ; R26R RFP mice at P0 and P22 (Figure 1L-M). Therefore, the Etv1 expression domain in the diencephalon at E12.5 identifies precursors of the medial habenular nuclei.
In summary, we have identified several molecular markers that are expressed in distinct but overlapping domains of the prospective habenula at E12.5 (Figure 1J).
Loss of Pax6 results in expansion of the pretectum and thalamus at the expense of the epithalamus
We next examined how loss of Pax6 altered the patterning of the diencephalon, particularly the formation of the thalamus and the pretectum, as they reside in the ventral and caudal sides of the habenula, respectively. Olig3 is normally expressed in the thalamus (rTh and cTh) and the ZLI  (Figure 2D). In Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos at E12.5, Olig3 expression was maintained and its expression domain appeared expanded dorsally (Figure 2K). Because of the flexure of the neural tube, the pretectum, which is demarcated by the expression of Pax3 and Ascl1, appeared dorsal to the epithalamus on a coronal section (Figure 2E,F). Immunofluorescence for Dbx1 and Pax3 showed that these two molecules are expressed in two juxtaposed domains, corresponding to the habenula and the pretectum, respectively, at E12.5 (Figure 2G). In Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos, the expression domains of Pax3 and Ascl1 were expanded anteriorly/ventrally so that the Ascl1 and Pax3 expression domain abnormally opposed or partially overlapped with that of the Olig3+ domain at E12.5 (Figure 2K-M). Remarkably, probably because of the protein perdurance, Dbx1 protein was still detectable in the presumptive habenula of Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos despite the lack of Dbx1 transcripts by E12.5 (Figure 2H,N). However, many of these Dbx1+ cells abnormally expressed Pax3 (Figure 2N). This suggests that some habenular progenitors may be initially formed but adopt a pretectal fate in the absence of Pax6. Collectively, our data suggest that the thalamic and pretectal progenitor domains are respectively expanded dorsally and anteriorly at the expense of the epithalamus in the absence of Pax6.
In summary, our findings demonstrate that Pax6 is essential for the development of the habenula. In the absence of Pax6, the habenula is lost in association with the dorsal expansion of the thalamus and anterior expansion of the pretectum.
Pax6 is required for the establishment of the anlage of the MDO
Pax6 is essential for regulating the expression of Shh in the prospective MDO
We next investigated whether Pax6 was required for the establishment of Shh expression in the ZLI. Shh is broadly expressed in the basal plate of the future diencephalon as early as E8.5 . A wedge-shaped Shh+ domain corresponding to the prospective ZLI was detected in wildtype embryos at E10.5 but not at E9.5 (Figure 6I and data not shown). By contrast, the MDO Shh expression domain was clearly visible in Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos by E9.5 (n = 3/3, Figure 6J), demonstrating that the loss of Pax6 results in precocious induction of MDO Shh expression in mice.
Loss of Shh activity leads to expansion of the epithalamus at the expense of the thalamus at E12.5
To investigate whether the loss of the habenula could be attributed to altered Shh function in Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos, we first sought to determine if Shh is essential for habenular development. There is decreased cell proliferation and increased cell death in the entire diencephalon in mouse embryos homozygous for a Shh-null mutation at E9.5 . To investigate the patterning role of Shh without the complication of growth defects in the diencephalon lacking Shh before E10.5, we performed analyses in mice homozygous for a Shh knock-in allele (designated as Shh SG ), which produces Shh::GFP fusion protein with reduced Shh activity . In Shh SG/SG embryos at E12.5, although Shh expression was unchanged in the basal plate and ZLI, the expression domain of Ptch1 was noticeably reduced in the thalamus at E12.5 (Figure 6C,G), indicating attenuated Shh activity in the p2 area in Shh SG/SG embryos. Remarkably, the expression domain of Dbx1 and Wnt7b in the presumptive epithalamus was expanded ventrally and overlapped with that of Neurog2 and Olig3 at E12.5 (Figure 2O-R). At E14.5, the expression domain of Irx1, Pou4f1, Nrp2 and Etv1 was noticeably enlarged at the expense of the thalamus in Shh SG/SG embryos (Figure 3C,G,K,O). Immunofluorescence for GFP and NF in Gbx2 creER/+ ; Shh SG/SG embryos at E15.5 revealed that the GFP+ thalamus was evidently reduced in size compared with that of the control (Figure 4C). Furthermore, the habenula was expanded ventrally, and noticeably enlarged and multiple FR tracts were often detected in Shh SG/SG embryos (Figure 4C,C’ and the inset). Our results demonstrate that Shh plays an important role in positioning the border between the epithalamus and the thalamus. Reducing Shh activity leads to enlargement of the habenula at the expense of the thalamus.
Reducing Shh signaling partially restores the formation of the habenula in Pax6Sey/Seyembryos
To define the epistatic relationship between Shh and Pax6 in regulating habenular development, we investigated whether reducing Shh activity could rescue the habenula in embryos lacking Pax6 by generating Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG double mutant embryos. Similar to that found in Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos, the MDO Shh expression domain was expanded in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG double mutant embryos at E12.5 (Figure 6D). However, the range and the level of Ptch1 expression in the thalamus in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG embryos were more similar to those found in wildtype than those in either Pax6 Sey/Sey or Shh SG/SG single mutant embryos at E12.5 (Figure 6E-H). These observations suggest that attenuated Shh protein activity may partially offset an increased Shh transcription at the MDO leading to relatively normal Shh signaling in the diencephalon in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG embryos. Significantly, the expression domain of Irx1, Pouf41 and Nrp2 was largely restored in the presumptive habenular region in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG double mutant embryos at E14.5 (Figure 3D,H,L, n ≥3 for each probe). These results indicate that Shh acts downstream of Pax6 in controlling the formation of the habenula. Despite the rescue of some habenular markers, Etv1 expression and the FR tract were still absent in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG embryos at E14.5 (Figure 3D,H,L,P). Therefore, in addition to its important role in restricting Shh, Pax6 may have an additional role in directly regulating habenular formation.
Pax6 limits Shh expression in the MDO independent of Irx1b function in zebrafish
Collectively, our results demonstrate that Pax6 plays an evolutionarily conserved function in establishing the temporal and spatial expression domain of Shh in the prospective MDO organizer.
Shh function from the MDO influences habenula formation
There is a surge of interest in the habenula because of its important role in cognitive and emotive behaviors [2, 3, 50, 51]. However, the molecular underpinnings of the development of the habenula in vertebrates are still poorly understood. Expression profiling of postmitotic habenular neurons has recently demonstrated that the habenula represents a unique molecular territory in the central nervous system and is composed of heterogeneous cell types . As a first step in understanding the specification and differentiation of habenular neurons, we have characterized the molecular markers that define habenular progenitors and precursors. Using genetic fate mapping, we have established a definite link between the medial habenular nuclei and Etv1-expressing progenitors in the epithalamus.
Transplantation and genetic manipulation experiments have demonstrated that Shh is the key molecule for MDO activity [12–14, 16]. Experiments in the zebrafish have suggested that transcription factors, such otx1/otx2, fezf2 and irx1b, form an interactive network to define the competent domain for the induction of shh in the prospective MDO . This model, however, is not completely compatible with expression data and loss-of-function studies in mice . The molecular mechanism underlying the formation of the MDO Shh expression in mammals remains to be determined. We found that loss of Pax6 causes not only expanded Shh expression, but also precocious formation of the wedge-shaped Shh expressing domain in the prospective ZLI in mouse embryos by E9.5, at least 24 hours before the expression normally commences. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report of accelerated formation of the MDO Shh expression domain caused by a mutation in vertebrates. It has been shown that Shh function in the ventral region is not essential for the induction of the MDO Shh expression [16, 20]. In line with these conclusions, we found that the MDO Shh expression domain was similarly expanded in Pax6 Sey/Sey and Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG double mutants. These findings demonstrate that the temporospatial expression of Shh in the prospective ZLI is independent of Shh signals from the basal plate, but directly regulated by Pax6. Gain-of-function of Pax6 results in reduced expression of the MDO shh expression in fish (Figures 5 and 7) and chick embryos as described recently . Therefore, Pax6 plays an evolutionarily conserved function in the establishment of the MDO Shh expression.
Antagonizing interactions between Pax6 and Shh play an important role in dorsoventral patterning of the neural tube. In the spinal cord, loss of Pax6 leads to expansion of the Shh expression domain in floor plate . Furthermore, Pax6 regulates the competence of the tissue in response to Shh signals [22, 31]. Similarly, removal of Pax6 partially rescues the medial ganglionic eminence marker in the forebrain of Shh mutants . In the current study, we demonstrate a similar antagonistic interaction between Pax6 and Shh in patterning the p2 alar plate. In the absence of Pax6, the development of habenula was blocked, while markers of the thalamus and pretectum were ectopically expressed in the presumptive habenula (Figures 2, 3 and 4 and summary in Figure 9B). Similarly, it has been shown that the expression domain of thalamic markers, Vmat2 and Ptn (previously known as Hbnf), is shifted dorsally to the epithalamus in Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos . Conversely, the expression of habenular markers was expanded into the thalamus in mouse and fish embryos with reduced Shh function or gain of function of Pax6 (Figures 2, 3, 8 and 9C). In addition, we observed partial co-expression of pretectal and caudal thalamic markers if Pax6 is inactivated, which suggests that Pax6 may also be involved in demarcating the cTh/pretectum boundary. Importantly, attenuation of Shh partially rescued expression of habenular markers in the presumptive epithalamus in Pax6 Sey/Sey embryos (Figures 3 and 9D). Furthermore, genetic experiments in zebrafish clearly demonstrated that shh acts downstream of pax6 in controlling the formation of the pineal complex and habenular precursors (Figure 8). Collectively, our findings demonstrate that patterning defects in the p2 domain that is devoid of Pax6 can, in part, be attributed to the precocious formation of MDO Shh expression and/or enhanced Shh activity in both mouse and fish embryos. It is worth noting that despite the rescue of some habenular markers, Etv1 expression was missing and the FR tract was also absent in Pax6 Sey/Sey ; Shh SG/SG embryos at E14.5 (Figure 4J-L and data not shown). It has been shown that Etv1 is a direct transcriptional target of Pax6 in cortical development . Furthermore, we found that deletion of Etv1 resulted in abnormal formation of the medial habenular nuclei in mice (Guo and Li, unpublished observations). Therefore, in addition to its regulation of Shh, Pax6 may also have a direct role in regulating the differentiation of the habenula.
In this study, we have combined gene expression and genetic fate-mapping to define the progenitors of habenular nuclei. We demonstrate that Pax6 is essential for establishing the temporospatial expression of Shh in the prospective ZLI in vertebrates. Furthermore, we demonstrate that Shh has a far-reaching effect in mediating Pax6 function in controlling the p2 domain to diverge into the epithalamus, cTh, and rTh.
Maintenance of mouse and fish
All animal work has been conducted according to relevant national and international guidelines. Experimental procedures with mouse and fish were approved by the Animal Care Committee at the University of Connecticut Health Center and the Regierungspräsidium Karlsruhe (Aktenzeichen 35–9185.64) and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). All mouse strains were maintained on a mixed genetic background. Noon of the day on which a copulatory plug was detected was designated as E0.5. Mice carrying the small eye mutation Pax6 Sey were identified by the characteristic nasal and eye defects and confirmed with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis as described previously . Embryos carrying the Gbx2 creER and Shh GFP::Shh alleles were identified by EGFP florescence in the spinal cord and by PCR genotyping as described previously [6, 45]. At least three embryos of each genotype were examined and only the reproducible phenotype was described unless otherwise indicated.
Breeding zebrafish (Danio rerio) were maintained at 28°C on a 14 hour light /10 hour dark cycle. To prevent pigment formation, embryos were raised in 0.2 mM 1-phenyl-2-thiourea (PTU, Sigma, St. Louis, MO) after 24 hpf. The data we present in this study were acquired from analysis of KIT wild-type zebrafish AB2O3 as well as the slow muscle omitted b641 mutant line (referred to as smu) carrying a mutation in smoothened homolog .
Transient knock-down of gene expression in zebrafish was performed as described previously . We used the following morpholino-antisense oligomers (Gene Tools, Philomath, OR) at a concentration of 0.3 mM each: pax6a MO (5′-TTTGTATCCTCGCTGAAGTTCTTCG-3′) and pax6b MO (5′-CTGAGCCCTTCCGAGCAAAACAGTG-3′) . MO oligomers were injected into the yolk cell close to blastomeres at the one-cell or two-cell stage.
For mis-expression experiments full-length pax6 and irx1b was cloned into a pCS2+ vector  and from this template mRNA was synthesized in vitro (Message Machine Kit, Ambion, Amersham, UK.). Together with rhodamine dextran (MiniRuby, Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA) as lineage tracer, 350 pg mRNA per embryo was injected into the one-cell stage.
Immunohistochemistry and in situhybridization
Fish embryos were fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde/phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) at 4°C overnight for further analysis. Whole-mount mRNA ISHs were performed as described previously . Embryonic mouse brains were dissected in cold PBS and fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde overnight for immunostaining or RNA ISH. Brains were cryoprotected and embedded in optimal cutting temperature (OCT) compound (TissueTek, Torrance, CA, USA) and sectioned in 20 μm thickness. Immunohistochemistry and ISH were performed as described previously . Detailed protocols are available on the Li lab website . The following antibodies were used in this study: rabbit anti-GFP (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA, USA); mouse anti-neurofilament, anti-Pax3, and anti-Pax6 (Developmental Study of Hybridoma Bank, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA); rabbit anti-GABA (Sigma); mouse anti-Pou4f1 (Santa Cruz, Biotechnology, Dallas, TX); rabbit anti-Dbx1, a gift from Y. Nakagawa (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA) ; Alexa secondary antibodies (Invitrogen). To compare the spatial expression domain of molecular markers, ISH and immunohistochemistry were performed on serial sections of the same embryo or carefully matched sections of different embryos.
We are grateful to Li lab members for helpful comments on the manuscript. We thank Dr. Richard Maas for providing Sey mutant mice. We thank Dr. Y. Nakagawa for providing the anti-Dbx1 antibody and Dr. M. Carl for providing the zebrafish probes against otx5 and cxcr4b. The monoclonal antibodies against neurofilament, Pax3, and Pax6 were developed by Drs. T. Jessell, C.P. Ordahl, and A. Kawakami, respectively, and were obtained from the Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank developed under the auspices of the NICHD and maintained by The University of Iowa, Department of Biology, Iowa City, IA 52242. This work was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Health (R01HD050474) to J. Li and by an Emmy-Noether fellowship of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SCHO847/2) to S. Scholpp. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
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