In the vertebrate neural tube, cell cycle exit of neuronal progenitors is accompanied by the expression of transcription factors that define their generic and sub-type specific properties, but how the regulation of cell cycle withdrawal intersects with that of cell fate determination is poorly understood. Here we show by both loss- and gain-of-function experiments that the neuronal-subtype-specific homeodomain transcription factor Phox2b drives progenitor cells to become post-mitotic. In the absence of Phox2b, post-mitotic neuronal precursors are not generated in proper numbers. Conversely, forced expression of Phox2b in the embryonic chick spinal cord drives ventricular zone progenitors to become post-mitotic neurons and to relocate to the mantle layer. In the neurons thus generated, ectopic expression of Phox2b is sufficient to initiate a programme of motor neuronal differentiation characterised by expression of Islet1 and of the cholinergic transmitter phenotype, in line with our previous results showing that Phox2b is an essential determinant of cranial motor neurons. These results suggest that Phox2b coordinates quantitative and qualitative aspects of neurogenesis, thus ensuring that neurons of the correct phenotype are generated in proper numbers at the appropriate times and locations.
Motor neurons are a widely studied model of vertebrate neurogenesis. They can be subdivided in somatic, branchial and visceral motor neurons. Recent studies on the dorsoventral patterning of the rhombencephalon have implicated the homeobox genes Pax6 and Nkx2.2 in the early divergence of the transcriptional programme of hindbrain somatic and visceral motor neuronal differentiation. We provide genetic evidence that the paired-like homeodomain protein Phox2b is required for the formation of all branchial and visceral, but not somatic, motor neurons in the hindbrain. In mice lacking Phox2b, both the generic and subtype-specific programs of motoneuronal differentiation are disrupted at an early stage. Most motor neuron precursors die inside the neuroepithelium while those that emigrate to the mantle layer fail to switch on early postmitotic markers and to downregulate neuroepithelial markers. Thus, the loss of function of Phox2b in hindbrain motor neurons exemplifies a novel control point in the generation of CNS neurons.