Survival and maturation of dorsal root ganglia sensory neurons during development depend on target-derived neurotrophins. These target-derived signals must be transmitted across long distances to alter gene expression. Here, we address the possibility that long-range retrograde signals initiated by target-derived neurotrophins activate a specialized transcriptional program. The transcription factor MEF2D is expressed in sensory neurons; we show that expression of this factor is induced in response to target-derived neurotrophins that stimulate the distal axons. We demonstrate that MEF2D regulates expression of an anti-apoptotic bcl-2 family member, bcl-w. Expression of mef2d and bcl-w is stimulated in response to activation of a Trk-dependent ERK5/MEF2 pathway, and our data indicate that this pathway promotes sensory neuron survival. We find that mef2d and bcl-w are members of a larger set of retrograde response genes, which are preferentially induced by neurotrophin stimulation of distal axons. Thus, activation of an ERK5/MEF2D transcriptional program establishes and maintains the cellular constituents of functional sensory circuits.
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