The expression and function of the basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factor NeuroD were studied in the developing neural retina in rodent. neuroD was expressed in areas of undetermined retinal cells as well as developing photoreceptors and amacrine interneurons. Expression was maintained in a subset of mature photoreceptors in the adult retina. Using both loss-of-function and gain-of-function approaches, NeuroD was found to play multiple roles in retinal development. (1) NeuroD was found to be a critical regulator of the neuron versus glial cell fate decision. Retinal explants derived from NeuroD-null mice demonstrated a three- to fourfold increase in Muller glia. Forced expression of neuroD in progenitors in rat using retroviruses hastened cell cycle withdrawal and blocked gliogenesis in vivo. (2) NeuroD appeared to regulate interneuron development, favouring amacrine over bipolar differentiation. Forced NeuroD expression resulted in an increase in amacrine interneurons and a decrease in bipolar interneurons. In the complementary experiment, retinae derived from NeuroD-null mice demonstrated a twofold increase in bipolar interneurons and a delay in amacrine differentiation. (3) NeuroD appeared to be essential for the survival of a subset of rod photoreceptors. In conclusion, these results implicate NeuroD in a variety of developmental functions including cell fate determination, differentiation and neuron survival.

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