LIM homeobox genes have a prominent role in the regulation of neuronal subtype identity and distinguish motor neuron subclasses in the embryonic spinal cord. We have investigated the role of Isl-class LIM homeodomain proteins in motor neuron diversification using mouse genetic methods. All spinal motor neuron subtypes initially express both Isl1 and Isl2, but Isl2 is rapidly downregulated by visceral motor neurons. Mouse embryos lacking Isl2 function exhibit defects in the migration and axonal projections of thoracic level motor neurons that appear to reflect a cell-autonomous switch from visceral to somatic motor neuron character. Additional genetic mutations that reduce or eliminate both Isl1 and Isl2 activity result in more pronounced defects in visceral motor neuron generation and erode somatic motor neuron character. Thus, an early phase of high Isl expression and activity in newly generated motor neurons permits the diversification of visceral and somatic motor neuron subtypes in the developing spinal cord.
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