Neurobiologists from Heidelberg University’s Centre for Organismal Studies (COS) have gained new insights into how different types of nerve cells are formed in the developing animal. Through specialised microscopes, they were able to follow the development of the neural retina in the eye of living zebrafish embryos. Using high-resolution three-dimensional time-lapse images the researchers simultaneously observed the division of retinal nerve cells and changes in gene expression. This enabled them to gain insights into the way in which the two processes are linked during eye development and how the number and proportion of different cell types are regulated.
A central question in developmental and regenerative neurobiology concerns the growth processes in animal organisms: How does a growing animal control the generation of the right number of each type and subtype of nerve cell in the brain and what is the relationship between these cells? The retina consists of many different kinds of nerve cells, which are well characterised and common to all vertebrates. Thus, the retina is a particularly good model for studying neuronal development. The researchers studied such retinal developmental processes in living organisms using zebrafish embryos, which are completely transparent and grow rapidly outside their mother.
All retinal cells, which are either excitatory or inhibitory, arise from a relatively small number of apparently homogeneous progenitor cells. These progenitors are able to generate all the different retinal cell types. “It is a challenge to understand how each progenitor cell contributes to the correct number and subtype of nerve cells that compose the final retinal network. Our work contributes to the understanding of how different genes orchestrate neuronal diversity along a progenitor cell lineage, that is the number of cell divisions and types of neurons generated”, says Heidelberg researcher Dr. Lucia Poggi.
To tackle this challenge, Dr. Poggi’s team used different lines of transgenic zebrafish, in which fluorescent reporter proteins highlight the expression of different genes in dividing cells. Working in close cooperation with Dr. Patricia Jusuf of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, the researchers found that some particular kinds of excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells tend to be lineally related, i.e. they derive from a common progenitor cell. For the first time, 4D recordings permitted an in vivo analysis of how the generation of particular inhibitory cells is regulated through coordination of cell division mode and gene expression within individual retinal progenitors of excitatory nerve cells.
This study has established a model of how cell lineage influences neuronal subtype specification and neuronal circuitry formation in the native environment of the vertebrate brain. The results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.