During retina development, ganglion cells extend their axons exclusively into the innermost tissue layer, but not into outer retina layers. In order to elucidate guiding mechanisms for axons, tissue strips of embryonic chicken retinae were explanted onto retinal cryosections (cryoculture). Ganglion cell axons originating from the explant grew preferentially on the innermost retina layer of cryosections, whereas outer tissue layers were avoided, very much as in vivo. Stereotropism, interaction with laminin of the basal lamina and axonal fasciculation did not significantly affect oriented axonal outgrowth, so that stereotropism as a guidance mechanism could be excluded. Ganglion cell axons were not directed by physical barriers, e.g. microstructured silicon oxide chips. Similarly, UV induced protein inactivation revealed that laminin present in the inner retina did not provide a guidance cue. Even in the absence of ganglion cell axons in retinal cryosections due to prior optic nerve transection in ovo, the growth preference for the innermost retina layer was maintained in cryocultures. However, oriented elongation of axons along the innermost retina layer was lost when radial glial endfeet were selectively eliminated in retinal cryosections. In addition, glial endfeet provided an excellent growth substratum when pure preparations of endfeet were employed in explant cultures. The preference for glial endfeet positioned at the inner retina surface was accompanied by the avoidance of outer retina layers, most likely because of inhibitory components in this region. This assumption is corroborated by the finding that addition of exogenous growth-promoting laminin to cryosections did not abolish the inhibition. Laminin on glass surfaces provided an excellent substratum. Axonal outgrowth was also seriously hampered on specifically purified cells of the outer retina. Most notable, however, in cryocultures aberrant innervation of outer retina layers could be induced by prior heat or protease treatment of cryosections, which pointed to proteins as potential inhibitory components. In summary the data substantiate the hypothesis that within the retina, ganglion cell axons are guided by a dual mechanism based on a permissive and an inhibitory zone. Radial glia is likely to be instructive in this process.

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