The floor plate is situated at the ventral midline of the neural tube and is an important intermediate target for commissural axons. During elongation, these axons converge bilaterally on the ventral midline neural tube and after crossing the floor plate make an abrupt rostral turn. Ample evidence indicates that the initial projection of commissural axons to the floor plate is guided by a chemotropic factor secreted by floor plate cells. However, the way in which the subsequent interaction of these axons with the floor plate leads them to make further trajectory changes remains undefined. In an effort to gain further understanding of the structure and function of floor plate cells, we have taken advantage of a line of transgenic mice in which these cells express beta-galactosidase and thus can be stained by histochemical means. In this line, a genomic imprinting mechanism restricts the expression of the lacZ transgene to only a proportion of the floor plate cells, allowing their morphology to be appreciated with particular clarity. Our analysis revealed that the basal processes of floor plate cells are flattened in their rostrocaudal dimension and possess fine lateral branches which are aligned with commissural axons. Unexpectedly, beta-galactosidase activity was also detected within longer transverse linear profiles traversing the floor plate whose ultrastructural appearance was not that of floor plate cells but instead corresponded to that of commissural axons. Enzyme activity was not detected in more proximal axonal segments or in the neuronal cell bodies from which these axons originated. Therefore, we propose that the transgene product, and potentially other proteins synthesized by floor plate cells, can be transferred to decussating axons.

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