Mash1, a mammalian homologue of the Drosophila proneural genes of the achaete-scute complex, is transiently expressed throughout the developing peripheral autonomic nervous system and in subsets of cells in the neural tube. In the mouse, targeted mutation of Mash1 has revealed a role in the development of parts of the autonomic nervous system and of olfactory neurons, but no discernible phenotype in the brain has been reported. Here, we show that the adrenergic and noradrenergic centres of the brain are missing in Mash1 mutant embryos, whereas most other brainstem nuclei are preserved. Indeed, the present data together with the previous results show that, except in cranial sensory ganglia, Mash1 function is essential for the development of all central and peripheral neurons that express noradrenergic traits transiently or permanently. In particular, we show that, in the absence of MASH1, these neurons fail to initiate expression of the noradrenaline biosynthetic enzyme dopamine beta-hydroxylase. We had previously shown that all these neurons normally express the homeodomain transcription factor Phox2a, a positive regulator of the dopamine beta-hydroxylase gene and that a subset of them depend on it for their survival. We now report that expression of Phox2a is abolished or massively altered in the Mash1−/− mutants, both in the noradrenergic centres of the brain and in peripheral autonomic ganglia. These results suggest that MASH1 controls noradrenergic differentiation at least in part by controlling expression of Phox2a and point to fundamental homologies in the genetic circuits that determine the noradrenergic phenotype in the central and peripheral nervous system.

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