Axial level-dependent molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the genesis of the embryonic neural plate

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The transcription factor gene Sox2, centrally involved in neural primordial regulation, is activated by many enhancers. During the early stages of embryonic development, Sox2 is regulated by the enhancers N2 and N1 in the anterior neural plate (ANP) and posterior neural plate (PNP), respectively. This differential use of the enhancers reflects distinct regulatory mechanisms underlying the genesis of ANP and PNP. The ANP develops directly from the epiblast, triggered by nodal signal inhibition, and via the combined action of TFs SOX2, OTX2, POU3F1, and ZIC2, which promotes the the ANP development and inhibits other cell lineages. In contrast, the PNP is derived from neuromesodermal bipotential axial stem cells that develop into the neural plate when Sox2 is activated by the N1 enhancer, whereas they develop into the paraxial mesoderm when the N1 enhancer is repressed by the action of TBX6. The axial stem cells are maintained by the activity of WNT3a and T (Brachyury). However, at axial levels more anterior to the 8th somites (cervical levels), the development of both the neural plate and somite proceeds in the absence of WNT3a, T, or TBX6. These observations indicate that distinct molecular and cellular mechanisms determine neural plate genesis based on the axial level, and contradict the classical concept of the term “neural induction,” which assumes a pan-neural plate mechanism.

Regulation of the genesis of neural primordia is distinct, depending on the axial level. At the cephalic level, where the N2 enhancer activates Sox2, the neural plate develops directly from the epiblast, whereas at the trunk and tail levels where the N1 enhancer activates Sox2, neuromesodermal bipotential axial stem cells are the neural primordium. However, the mechanism of regulation at the cervical levels is unknown.

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