Expression of the UNC-5 guidance receptor in the touch neurons of C. elegans steers their axons dorsally

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GROWTH cones in developing nervous systems encounter a sequence of extracellular cues during migration1,2. In theory, a growth cone can navigate by selectively expressing or activating surface receptor(s) that recognize extracellular cues appropriate to each migratory phase. Using the simple Caenorhabditis elegans nervous system, we attempted to demonstrate that path selection by migrating growth cones can be predictably altered by ectopic expression of a single receptor. The unc-5 gene of C. elegans encodes a unique receptor of the immunoglobulin superfamily (UNC-5), required cell-autonomously to guide growth cone and mesodermal cell migrations in a dorsal direction on the epidermis3,4. We report here that the UNC-5 receptor induces dorsally oriented axon trajectories when ectopically expressed in the touch receptor neurons which normally extend pioneer axons longitudinally or ventrally on the epidermis5. These errant trajectories depend on unc-6, which encodes a putative epidermal path cue6, just as normal dorsally oriented axon trajectories do (such as those of certain motor neurons4), suggesting that UNC-5 acts to reorient the touch cell growth cones by using its normal guidance mechanisms. These results support previous evidence that UNC-5 and UNC-6 play instructive rules in guiding growth cone migrations on the epidermis in C. elegans 4) and indicate that pioneering growth cones, which normally migrate in different directions, may use equivalent intracellular signalling mechanisms for guidance.

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