In the developing hindbrain, cranial motor axon guidance depends on diffusible repellent factors produced by the floor plate. Our previous studies have suggested that candidate molecules for mediating this effect are Slits, Netrin-1 and Semaphorin3A (Sema3A). It is unknown to what extent these factors contribute to floor plate-derived chemorepulsion of motor axons, and the downstream signalling pathways are largely unclear.
In this study, we have used a combination of in vitro and in vivo approaches to identify the components of floor plate chemorepulsion and their downstream signalling pathways. Using in vitro motor axon deflection assays, we demonstrate that Slits and Netrin-1, but not Sema3A, contribute to floor plate repulsion. We also find that the axon pathways of dorsally projecting branchiomotor neurons are disrupted in Netrin-1 mutant mice and in chick embryos expressing dominant-negative Unc5a receptors, indicating an in vivo role for Netrin-1. We further demonstrate that Slit and Netrin-1 signalling are mediated by Rho-kinase (ROCK) and myosin light chain kinase (MLCK), which regulate myosin II activity, controlling actin retrograde flow in the growth cone. We show that MLCK, ROCK and myosin II are required for Slit and Netrin-1-mediated growth cone collapse of cranial motor axons. Inhibition of these molecules in explant cultures, or genetic manipulation of RhoA or myosin II function in vivo causes characteristic cranial motor axon pathfinding errors, including the inability to exit the midline, and loss of turning towards exit points.
Our findings suggest that both Slits and Netrin-1 contribute to floor plate-derived chemorepulsion of cranial motor axons. They further indicate that RhoA/ROCK, MLCK and myosin II are components of Slit and Netrin-1 signalling pathways, and suggest that these pathways are of key importance in cranial motor axon navigation.