The human central nervous system (CNS) displays the greatest cellular diversity of anyorgan system, consisting of billions of neurons, of numerous cell sub-types, interconnectedin a vast network. Given this enormous complexity, decoding the genetic programscontrolling the multistep process of CNS development remains a major challenge. Whilegreat progress has been made with respect to understanding sub-type specification,considerably less is known regarding how the generation of the precise number of eachsub-type is controlled.
The aim of this thesis was to gain deeper knowledge into the regulatory programs controlling cell specification and proliferation. To address these questions I have studied the Drosophila embryonic CNS as a model system, to thereby be able to investigate the genetic mechanisms at high resolution. Despite the different size and morphology between the Drosophila and the mammalian CNS, the lineages of their progenitors share similarity. Importantly for this thesis, both species progenitors show elaborate variations in their proliferation modes, either giving rise to daughters that can directly differentiate into neurons or glia (type 0), divide once (type I), or multiple times (type II).
The studies launched off with a comprehensive chemical forward genetic screen, for the very last born cell in the well-studied lineage of progenitor NB5-6T: the Ap4 neuron, which expresses the neuropeptide FMRFa. NB5-6T is a powerful model to use, because it undergoes a programmed type I>0 daughter cell proliferation switch. An FMRF-eGFP transgenic reporter was utilized as readout for successful terminal differentiation of Ap4/FMRFa and thereby proper lineage progression of the ∼20 cells generated. The strongest mutants were mapped to genes with both known and novel essential functions e.g., spatial and temporal patterning, cell cycle control, cell specification and chromatin modification. Subsequently, we focused on some of the genes that showed a loss of function phenotype with an excess of lineage cells. We found that Notch is critical for the type I>0 daughter cell proliferation switch in the NB5-6T lineage and globally as well. When addressing the broader relevance of these findings, and to further decipher the Notch pathway, we discovered that selective groups of E(spl) genes is controlling the switch in a close interplay with four key cell cycle factors: Cyclin E, String, E2F and Dacapo, in most if not all embryonic progenitors. The Notch mediation of the switch is likely to be by direct transcriptional regulation. Furthermore, another gene identified in the screen, sequoia, was investigated. The analysis revealed that sequoia is also controlling the daughter cell switch in the CNS, and this partly through context dependent interactions with the Notch pathway.
Taken together, the findings presented in this thesis demonstrate that daughter cell proliferation switches in Drosophila neural lineages are genetically programmed, and that Notch contributes to the triggering of these events. Given that early embryonic processes is frequently shown to be evolutionary conserved, you can speculate that changeable daughter proliferation programs could be applied to mammals, and contribute to a broader understanding of proliferation processes in humans as well.