Mice lacking the POU-domain transcription factor Brn3a exhibit marked defects in sensory axon growth and abnormal sensory apoptosis. We have determined the regulatory targets of Brn3a in the developing trigeminal ganglion using microarray analysis of Brn3a mutant mice. These results show that Brn3 mediates the coordinated expression of neurotransmitter systems, ion channels, structural components of axons and inter- and intracellular signaling systems. Loss of Brn3a also results in the ectopic expression of transcription factors normally detected in earlier developmental stages and in other areas of the nervous system. Target gene expression is normal in heterozygous mice, consistent with prior work showing that autoregulation by Brn3a results in gene dosage compensation. Detailed examination of the expression of several of these downstream genes reveals that the regulatory role of Brn3a in the trigeminal ganglion appears to be conserved in more posterior sensory ganglia but not in the CNS neurons that express this factor.
Brn3a is a POU-domain transcription factor expressed in peripheral sensory neurons and in specific interneurons of the caudal CNS. Sensory expression of Brn3a is regulated by a specific upstream enhancer, the activity of which is greatly increased in Brn3a knockout mice, implying that Brn3a negatively regulates its own expression. Brn3a binds to highly conserved sites within this enhancer, and alteration of these sites abolishes Brn3a regulation of reporter transgenes. Furthermore, endogenous Brn3a expression levels in the sensory ganglia of Brn3a +/+ and Brn3a +/- mice are similar, demonstrating that autoregulation can compensate for the loss of one allele by increasing transcription of the remaining gene copy. Conversely, transgenic overexpression of Brn3a in the trigeminal ganglion suppresses the expression of the endogenous gene. These findings demonstrate that the Brn3a locus functions as a self-regulating unit to maintain a constant expression level of this key regulator of neural development.