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J Neurosci. 2001 Nov 1;21(21):8548-63.

Topographic-specific axon branching controlled by ephrin-As is the critical event in retinotectal map development.

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Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, The Salk Institute, La Jolla, California 92037, USA.


The retinotectal projection is the predominant model for studying molecular mechanisms controlling development of topographic axonal connections. Our analyses of topographic mapping of retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axons in chick optic tectum indicate that a primary role for guidance molecules is to regulate topographic branching along RGC axons, a process that imposes unique requirements on the molecular control of map development. We show that topographically appropriate connections are established exclusively by branches that form along the axon shaft. Initially, RGC axons overshoot their appropriate termination zone (TZ) along the anterior-posterior (A-P) tectal axis; temporal axons overshoot the greatest distance and nasal axons the least, which correlates with the nonlinear increasing A-P gradient of ephrin-A repellents. In contrast, branches form along the shaft of RGC axons with substantial A-P topographic specificity. Topography is enhanced through the preferential arborization of appropriately positioned branches and elimination of ectopic branches. Using a membrane stripe assay and time-lapse microscopy, we show that branches form de novo along retinal axons. Temporal axons preferentially branch on their topographically appropriate anterior tectal membranes. After the addition of soluble EphA3-Fc, which blocks ephrin-A function, temporal axons branch equally on anterior and posterior tectal membranes, indicating that the level of ephrin-As in posterior tectum is sufficient to inhibit temporal axon branching and generate branching specificity in vitro. Our findings indicate that topographic branch formation and arborization along RGC axons are critical events in retinotectal mapping. Ephrin-As inhibit branching along RGC axons posterior to their correct TZ, but alone cannot account for topographic branching and must cooperate with other molecular activities to generate appropriate mapping along the A-P tectal axis.

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