Pax6 and Pax2 are members of the Pax family of transcription factors that are both expressed in the developing visual system of zebrafish embryos. Pax6 protein is present in all cells that form the neural retina and pigment epithelium, whereas Pax2 is located primarily in cells that will give rise to the optic stalk. In this study, we have addressed the role of midline signalling in the regulation of Pax2 and Pax6 distributions and in the subsequent morphogenesis of the eyes. Midline signalling is severely perturbed in cyclops mutant embryos resulting in an absence of ventral midline CNS tissue and fusion of the eyes. Mutant embryos ectopically express Pax6 in a bridge of tissue around the anterior pole of the neural keel in the position normally occupied by cells that form the optic stalks. In contrast, Pax2 protein is almost completely absent from this region in mutant embryos. Concommitant with the changes in Pax protein distribution, cells in the position of the optic stalks differentiate as retina. These results suggest that a signal emanating from the midline, which is absent in cyclops mutant embryos, may be required to promote Pax2 and inhibit Pax6 expression in cells destined to form the optic stalks. Sonic hedgehog (Shh also known as Vhh-1 and Hhg-1) is a midline signalling molecule that is absent from the neuroepithelium of cyclops mutant embryos at early developmental stages. To test the possibility that Shh might be able to regulate the spatial expression of Pax6 and Pax2 in the optic primordia, it was overexpressed in the developing CNS. The number of cells containing Pax2 was increased following shh overexpression and embryos developed hypertrophied optic stalk-like structures. Complimentary to the changes in Pax2 distribution, there were fewer Pax6-containing cells and pigment epithelium and neural retina were reduced. Our results suggest that Shh or a closely related signalling molecule emanating from midline tissue in the ventral forebrain either directly or indirectly induces the expression of Pax2 and inhibits the expression of Pax6 and thus may regulate the partitioning of the optic primordia into optic stalks and retinal tissue.

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