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Dev Biol. 1999 Apr 15;208(2):324-36.

Independent development of sensory and motor innervation patterns in embryonic chick hindlimbs.

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Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Utah School of Medicine, 50 North Medical Drive, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84132, USA.


Previous studies suggest that sensory axon outgrowth is guided by motoneurons, which are specified to innervate particular target muscles. Here we present evidence that questions this conclusion. We have used a new approach to assess the pathfinding abilities of bona fide sensory neurons, first by eliminating motoneurons after neural crest cells have coalesced into dorsal root ganglia (DRG) and second by challenging sensory neurons to innervate muscles in a novel environment created by shifting a limb bud rostrally. The resulting sensory innervation patterns mapped with the lipophilic dyes DiI and DiA showed that sensory axons projected robustly to muscles in the absence of motoneurons, if motoneurons were eliminated after DRG formation. Moreover, sensory neurons projected appropriately to their usual target muscles under these conditions. In contrast, following limb shifts, muscle sensory innervation was often derived from inappropriate segments. In this novel environment, sensory neurons tended to make more "mistakes" than motoneurons. Whereas motoneurons tended to innervate their embryologically correct muscles, sensory innervation was more widespread and was generally from more rostral segments than normal. Similar results were obtained when motoneurons were eliminated in embryos with limb shifts. These findings show that sensory neurons are capable of navigating through their usual terrain without guidance from motor axons. However, unlike motor axons, sensory axons do not appear to actively seek out appropriate target muscles when confronted with a novel terrain. These findings suggest that sensory neuron identity with regard to pathway and target choice may be unspecified or quite plastic at the time of initial axon outgrowth.

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