Although a number of genes have been found to have restricted expression domains in the embryonic forebrain and midbrain, it remains largely unknown how the expression of these genes is regulated at the cellular level. In this study, we explored the mechanisms for the differential expression of region-specific transcription factors in neuroepithelial cells by using both primary and immortalized neuroepithelial cells from the rat brain at embryonic day 11.5. We found that differential expression patterns of Pax-3, Pax-5, Pax-6, Dlx-1, Dlx-2, Emx2, Otx1 and Dbx observed in vivo were maintained even when the cells were isolated and cultured in vitro, free from environmental influences. Furthermore, in response to Sonic hedgehog, which is a major inductive signal from the environment for regional specification, neuroepithelial cells that maintain distinct regional identities expressed different sets of ventral-specific genes including Islet-1, Nkx-2.1 and Nkx-2.2. These results suggest that certain cell-autonomous mechanisms play important roles in regulating both environmental signal-dependent and -independent expression of region-specific genes. Thus, we propose that use of the in vitro culture systems we describe in this study facilitates the understanding of regulatory mechanisms of region-specific genes in neuroepithelial cells.

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