The myogenic basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors, Myf5, MyoD, myogenin and MRF4, are unique in their ability to direct a program of specific gene transcription leading to skeletal muscle phenotype. The observation that Myf5 and MyoD can force myogenic conversion in non-muscle cells in vitro does not imply that they are equivalent. In this paper, we show that Myf5 transcripts are detected before those of MyoD during chick limb development. The Myf5 expression domain resembles that of Pax3 and is larger than that of MyoD. Moreover, Myf5 and Pax3 expression is correlated with myoblast proliferation, while MyoD is detected in post-mitotic myoblasts. These data indicate that Myf5 and MyoD are involved in different steps during chick limb bud myogenesis, Myf5 acting upstream of MyoD. The progression of myoblasts through the differentiation steps must be carefully controlled to ensure myogenesis at the right place and time during wing development. Because Notch signalling is known to prevent differentiation in different systems and species, we sought to determine whether these molecules regulate the steps occurring during chick limb myogenesis. Notch1 transcripts are associated with immature myoblasts, while cells expressing the ligands Delta1 and Serrate2 are more advanced in myogenesis. Misexpression of Delta1 using a replication-competent retrovirus activates the Notch pathway. After activation of this pathway, myoblasts still express Myf5 and Pax3 but have downregulated MyoD, resulting in inhibition of terminal muscle differentiation. We conclude that activation of Notch signalling during chick limb myogenesis prevents Myf5-expressing myoblasts from progressing to the MyoD-expressing stage.

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