We have studied the transcript distribution of the retinoic acid receptors (RARs) and the cytoplasmic retinoid binding proteins during embryonic development of the mouse nervous system. Of the three retinoic acid receptors, only RAR-gamma was not expressed in developing neural structures. RAR-beta and RAR-alpha both showed rostral limits of expression in the medulla oblongata equivalent to their patterns of expression in the neuroepithelium of the early hindbrain neural tube. Within their expression domains in the spinal cord and brain, RAR-alpha was ubiquitously expressed, whereas RAR-beta transcripts showed very specific patterns of expression, suggesting that this receptor is involved in mediating retinoic acid-induced gene expression in relation to the development of specific neural structures or pathways. The cytoplasmic binding proteins, cellular retinoic acid binding proteins type I and II (CRABP I and CRABP II) and cellular retinol binding protein type I (CRBP I), were widely distributed in developing neural structures. Their differential spatiotemporal patterns of expression suggest that fine regional control of availability of retinoic acid (RA) to the nuclear receptors plays an important role in organization and differentiation of the nervous system. For instance, expression of CRABP I in the migrating cells that give rise to the olivary and pontine nuclei, which develop abnormally in conditions of retinoid excess, is consistent with observations from a variety of other systems indicating that CRABP I limits the access of RA to the nuclear receptors in normal physiological conditions. Similarly, expression of CRBP I in the choroid plexuses, which develop abnormally in conditions of vitamin A deficiency, is consistent with observations indicating that this binding protein mediates the synthesis of RA in tissues requiring high levels of RA for their normal developmental programme. RAR-beta and CRABP II, which are both RA-inducible, were coexpressed with CRBP I in the choroid plexus and in many other sites, perhaps reflecting the fact that all three genes are RA-inducible. The function of CRABP II is not well understood; its domains of expression showed overlaps with both CRABP I and CRBP I.

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