Acquisition of distinct neuronal identities during development is critical for the assembly of diverse functional neural circuits in the brain. In both vertebrates and invertebrates, intrinsic determinants are thought to act in neural progenitors to specify their identity and the identity of their neuronal progeny. However, the extent to which individual factors can contribute to this is poorly understood. We investigate the role of orthodenticle in the specification of an identified neuroblast (neuronal progenitor) lineage in the Drosophila brain. Loss of orthodenticle from this neuroblast affects molecular properties, neuroanatomical features, and functional inputs of progeny neurons, such that an entire central complex lineage transforms into a functional olfactory projection neuron lineage. This ability to change functional macrocircuitry of the brain through changes in gene expression in a single neuroblast reveals a surprising capacity for novel circuit formation in the brain and provides a paradigm for large-scale evolutionary modification of circuitry.
The cells in the brain—including the neurons that transmit information—work together in groups called neural circuits. These cells develop from precursor cells called neuroblasts. Each neuroblast can produce many cells, and it is likely that cells that develop from the same neuroblast work together in the adult brain in the same neural circuit. How the adult cells develop into their final form plays an important role in creating a neural circuit, but this process is not fully understood.
In many animals, the complexity of their brain makes it difficult to follow how each individual neuroblast develops. However, all of the neuroblasts in the relatively simple brain of the fruit fly Drosophila have been identified. Furthermore, the genes responsible for establishing the initial identity of each neuroblast in the Drosophila brain are known. These genes may also determine which adult neurons develop from the neuroblast, and when each type of neuron is produced. However, the extent to which a single gene can influence the identity of neurons is unclear.
Sen et al. focused on two types of neuroblasts, each of which, although found next to each other in the developing Drosophila brain, produces neurons for different neural circuits. One of the neuroblasts generates the olfactory neurons responsible for detecting smells; the other innervates the ‘central complex’ that has a number of roles, including controlling the fly's movements. A gene called orthodenticle is expressed by the central complex neuroblast, but not by the olfactory neuroblast, and helps to separate the two neural circuits into different regions of the fly brain.
Sen et al. found that deleting the orthodenticle gene from the central complex neuroblast causes it to develop into olfactory neurons instead of central complex neurons. Tests showed that the modified neurons are completely transformed; they not only work like olfactory neurons, but they also have the same structure and molecular properties. Sen et al. have therefore demonstrated that it is possible to drastically alter the circuitry of the fruit fly brain by changing how one gene is expressed in one neuroblast. This suggests that new neural circuits can form relatively easily, and so could help us to understand how different brain structures and neural circuits evolved.