We have investigated the genetic circuitry underlying the determination of neuronal identity, using mammalian peripheral autonomic neurons as a model system. Previously, we showed that treatment of neural crest stem cells (NCSCs) with bone morphogenetic protein-2 (BMP-2) leads to an induction of MASH1 expression and consequent autonomic neuronal differentiation. We now show that BMP2 also induces expression of the paired homeodomain transcription factor Phox2a, and the GDNF/NTN signalling receptor tyrosine kinase c-RET. Constitutive expression of MASH1 in NCSCs from a retroviral vector, in the absence of exogenous BMP2, induces expression of both Phox2a and c-RET in a large fraction of infected colonies, and also promotes morphological neuronal differentiation and expression of pan-neuronal markers. In vivo, expression of Phox2a in autonomic ganglia is strongly reduced in Mash1 −/− embryos. These loss- and gain-of-function data suggest that MASH1 positively regulates expression of Phox2a, either directly or indirectly. Constitutive expression of Phox2a, by contrast to MASH1, fails to induce expression of neuronal markers or a neuronal morphology, but does induce expression of c-RET. These data suggest that MASH1 couples expression of pan-neuronal and subtype-specific components of autonomic neuronal identity, and support the general idea that identity is established by combining subprograms involving cascades of transcription factors, which specify distinct components of neuronal phenotype.

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