Expression and Role of Cadherins in the Mammalian Visual System

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Expression and Role of Cadherins in the Mammalian Visual System

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Title: Expression and Role of Cadherins in the Mammalian Visual System
Author: De la Huerta, Irina
Citation: De la Huerta, Irina. 2012. Expression and Role of Cadherins in the Mammalian Visual System. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: The complex circuitry of the visual system contains around one hundred functionally distinct neuronal types that become specified and connect with the appropriate synaptic partners during development. Previous studies have indicated that immature retinal ganglion cells already express subset-specific molecules that guide them to make precise synaptic choices. In the mammalian retina, members of the cadherin family of adhesion molecules are attractive candidates for this role. To test this idea I began by investigating the expression of cadherins 1-26 in the mouse retina and superior colliculus using in situ hybridization. I then studied the connectivity of cadherin-expressing neurons by analyzing mouse lines in which a marker was inserted after the start codon of each of six cadherin genes of interest. In this way, I identified functional circuits in the visual system that are marked by cadherins. One such circuit is formed of direction-selective retinal ganglion cells (DSGCs), which fire in response to objects moving in one (preferred) direction, and their synaptic partners, the starburst amacrine cells. There are four DSGC subsets, distinguished by their preference for dorsal, ventral, nasal, or temporal motion on the retina. I determined that cadherin 6 is selectively expressed by the two DSGCs subtypes that respond to dorsal or to ventral movement. In collaboration with other lab members I used in situ hybridization and gene expression profiling to identify other molecular markers that distinguish between the four DSGC subsets and that distinguish DSGCs from other retinal ganglion cells. Finally, I used birthdating and lineage tracing methods to ask when DSGCs become molecularly specified. I determined that at least two subsets of DSGCs are specified at or shortly after their birth. For cadherin 6-positive DSGCs, I went on to show that they are specified even before their birth, and that they arise from committed retinal progenitors. Globally, my experiments aimed not only to examine cadherin expression and function in the visual system, but also to demonstrate a method of using molecular signatures to probe the mechanisms of neural circuit assembly in the central nervous system.
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