During nervous system development, neurons form synaptic contacts with distant target cells. These connections are formed by the extension of axonal processes along predetermined pathways. Axon outgrowth is directed by growth cones located at the tips of these neuronal processes. Although the behavior of growth cones has been well-characterized in vitro, it is difficult to observe growth cones in vivo. We have observed motor neuron growth cones migrating in living Caenorhabditis elegans larvae using time-lapse confocal microscopy. Specifically, we observed the VD motor neurons extend axons from the ventral to dorsal nerve cord during the L2 stage. The growth cones of these neurons are round and migrate rapidly across the epidermis if they are unobstructed. When they contact axons of the lateral nerve fascicles, growth cones stall and spread out along the fascicle to form anvil-shaped structures. After pausing for a few minutes, they extend lamellipodia beyond the fascicle and resume migration toward the dorsal nerve cord. Growth cones stall again when they contact the body wall muscles. These muscles are tightly attached to the epidermis by narrowly spaced circumferential attachment structures. Stalled growth cones extend fingers dorsally between these hypodermal attachment structures. When a single finger has projected through the body wall muscle quadrant, the growth cone located on the ventral side of the muscle collapses and a new growth cone forms at the dorsal tip of the predominating finger. Thus, we observe that complete growth cone collapse occurs in vivo and not just in culture assays. In contrast to studies indicating that collapse occurs upon contact with repulsive substrata, collapse of the VD growth cones may result from an intrinsic signal that serves to maintain growth cone primacy and conserve cellular material.

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