The floor plate of the embryonic rat spinal cord has been proposed to act as an intermediate target that plays a role in the pattern of extension of commissural axons. To begin to examine the role of the floor plate in axon guidance at the midline, we have studied the precision of the commissural axon projection to and across the floor plate during development. To delineate the pathway, the fluorescent carbocyanine dye, Di-I, has been used as a probe. We show that commissural axons traverse the floor plate and turn rostrally at its contralateral border with remarkable precision. Axons were not observed to turn ipsilaterally and turned only upon reaching the contralateral edge of the floor plate. Virtually all commissural axons follow this route. The morphology of commissural growth cones was also examined. As they encountered the floor plate, commissural growth cones became larger and increased in complexity. The reorientation of axons in register with the floor plate boundary and the change in the morphological properties of commissural growth cones as they traverse the midline suggest that the floor plate may act as a guidepost with functions similar to cells that have been implicated in axon guidance in invertebrates.

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