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Dev Biol. 1999 Oct 1;214(1):60-71.

Patterns of programmed cell death in populations of developing spinal motoneurons in chicken, mouse, and rat.

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INSERM U.382, Developmental Biology Institute of Marseille (IBDM), CNRS, INSERM, Université Méditerranée, AP Marseille, Campus de Luminy, Case 907, Marseille Cedex 09, 13288, France.


During embryonic development, approximately one-half of the spinal motoneurons initially generated are lost during a wave of programmed cell death (PCD). Classical studies in this system laid the basis of much work on the role and control of neuronal cell death during development. However, we have little information concerning the timing of cell death in motoneuron pools at different rostrocaudal levels, especially in rodents. We developed a novel protocol for whole-mount TUNEL labeling that allows apoptotic nuclei to be visualized in whole-mount preparations of embryonic spinal cord; double labeling with antibodies to Islet 1/2 showed that nearly all TUNEL-positive cells were motoneurons. In chicken and mouse embryos, the density of TUNEL-positive nuclei was specifically increased following target ablation. The pattern of naturally occurring motoneuron PCD was studied in spinal cords from different species and ages: chick (E4.5-E9.0), mouse (E11.5-E15.5), and rat (E13.5-E16. 5). In all species, motoneuron PCD is first apparent at cervical levels and last at sacral levels. However, motoneuron PCD does not follow a strict rostrocaudal sequence. Following cervical motoneuron PCD, TUNEL profiles are first observed at lumbar levels in chick but at thoracic levels in rat. At a given rostrocaudal level, medial motoneurons tend to die before lateral populations, but here too there are exceptions. Motoneuron cell death is thus regulated in a highly stereotyped manner during development of vertebrate spinal cord. Our technique will provide a basis for the monitoring even localized changes in this pattern.

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