LIM-homeodomain (HD) and POU-HD transcription factors play crucial roles in neurogenesis. However, it remains largely unknown how they cooperate in this process and what downstream target genes they regulate. Here, we show that ISL1, a LIM-HD protein, is co-expressed with BRN3B, a POU-HD factor, in nascent post-mitotic retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). Similar to the Brn3b -null retinas, retina-specific deletion of Isl1 results in the apoptosis of a majority of RGCs and in RGC axon guidance defects. The Isl1 and Brn3b double null mice display more severe retinal abnormalities with a near complete loss of RGCs, indicating the synergistic functions of these two factors. Furthermore, we show that both Isl1 and Brn3b function downstream of Math5 to regulate the expression of a common set of RGC-specific genes. Whole-retina chromatin immunoprecipitation and in vitro transactivation assays reveal that ISL1 and BRN3B concurrently bind to and synergistically regulate the expression of a common set of RGC-specific genes. Thus, our results uncover a novel regulatory mechanism of BRN3B and ISL1 in RGC differentiation.
POU-domain transcription factors play essential roles in cell proliferation and differentiation. Previous studies have shown that targeted deletion of each of the three POU-domain Brn3 factors in mice leads to the developmental failure and apoptosis of a unique set of sensory neurons in retina, dorsal root ganglia, trigeminal ganglia and inner ear. The specific defects associated with the removal of each Brn3 gene closely reflect their characteristic spatiotemporal expression patterns. Nevertheless, it remains elusive whether Brn3 factors are functionally equivalent and act through a common molecular mechanism to regulate the development and survival of these sensory neurons. By knocking-in Brn3a ( Brn3a ki )into the Brn3b locus, we showed here that Brn3a ki was expressed in a spatiotemporal manner identical to that of endogenous Brn3b. In addition, Brn3a ki functionally restored the normal development and survival of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in the absence of Brn3b and fully reinstated the early developmental expression profiles of Brn3b downstream target genes in retina. These results indicate that Brn3 factors are functionally equal and that their unique roles in neurogenesis are determined by the distinctive Brn3 spatiotemporal expression patterns.