In the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans , neurons are generated from asymmetric divisions in which a mother cell divides to produce daughters that differ in fate. Here, we demonstrate that the gene pig-1 regulates the asymmetric divisions of neuroblasts that divide to produce an apoptotic cell and either a neural precursor or a neuron. In pig-1 mutants,these neuroblasts divide to produce daughters that are more equal in size, and their apoptotic daughters are transformed into their sisters, leading to the production of extra neurons. PIG-1 is orthologous to MELK, a conserved member of the polarity-regulating PAR-1/Kin1/SAD-1 family of serine/threonine kinases. Although MELK has been implicated in regulating the cell cycle, our data suggest that PIG-1, like other PAR-1 family members, regulates cell polarity.
Achaete-Scute basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) proteins promote neurogenesis during metazoan development. In this study, we characterize a C. elegans Achaete-Scute homolog, HLH-14. We find that a number of neuroblasts express HLH-14 in the C. elegans embryo, including the PVQ/HSN/PHB neuroblast, a cell that generates the PVQ interneuron, the HSN motoneuron and the PHB sensory neuron. hlh-14 mutants lack all three of these neurons. The fact that HLH-14 promotes all three classes of neuron indicates that C. elegans proneural bHLH factors may act less specifically than their fly and mammalian homologs. Furthermore, neural loss in hlh-14 mutants results from a defect in an asymmetric cell division: the PVQ/HSN/PHB neuroblast inappropriately assumes characteristics of its sister cell, the hyp7/T blast cell. We argue that bHLH proteins, which control various aspects of metazoan development, can control cell fate choices in C. elegans by regulating asymmetric cell divisions. Finally, a reduction in the function of hlh-2 , which encodes the C. elegans E/Daughterless bHLH homolog, results in similar neuron loss as hlh-14 mutants and enhances the effects of partially reducing hlh-14 function. We propose that HLH-14 and HLH-2 act together to specify neuroblast lineages and promote neuronal fate.