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Curr Biol. 2006 Dec 5;16(23):2279-92.

Early embryonic programming of neuronal left/right asymmetry in C. elegans.

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  • 1Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York 10032, USA.



Nervous systems are largely bilaterally symmetric on a morphological level but often display striking degrees of functional left/right (L/R) asymmetry. How L/R asymmetric functional features are superimposed onto an essentially bilaterally symmetric structure and how nervous-system laterality relates to the L/R asymmetry of internal organs are poorly understood. We address these questions here by using the establishment of L/R asymmetry in the ASE chemosensory neurons of C. elegans as a paradigm. This bilaterally symmetric neuron pair is functionally lateralized in that it senses a distinct class of chemosensory cues and expresses a putative chemoreceptor family in a L/R asymmetric manner.


We show that the directionality of the asymmetry of the two postmitotic ASE neurons ASE left (ASEL) and ASE right (ASER) in adults is dependent on a L-/R-symmetry-breaking event at a very early embryonic stage, the six-cell stage, which also establishes the L/R asymmetric placement of internal organs. However, the L/R asymmetry of the ASE neurons per se is dependent on an even earlier anterior-posterior (A/P) Notch signal that specifies embryonic ABa/ABp blastomere identities at the four-cell stage. This Notch signal, which functions through two T box genes, acts genetically upstream of a miRNA-controlled bistable feedback loop that regulates the L/R asymmetric gene-expression program in the postmitotic ASE cells.


Our results link adult neuronal laterality to the generation of the A/P axis at the two-cell stage and raise the possibility that neural asymmetries observed across the animal kingdom are similarly established by very early embryonic interactions.

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