MicroRNAs regulate gene expression in diverse physiological scenarios. Their role in the control of morphogen related signaling pathways has been less studied, particularly in the context of embryonic Central Nervous System (CNS) development. Here, we uncover a role for microRNAs in limiting the spatiotemporal range of morphogen expression and function. Wnt1 is a key morphogen in the embryonic midbrain, and directs proliferation, survival, patterning and neurogenesis. We reveal an autoregulatory negative feedback loop between the transcription factor Lmx1b and a newly characterized microRNA, miR135a2, which modulates the extent of Wnt1/Wnt signaling and the size of the dopamine progenitor domain. Conditional gain of function studies reveal that Lmx1b promotes Wnt1/Wnt signaling, and thereby increases midbrain size and dopamine progenitor allocation. Conditional removal of Lmx1b has the opposite effect, in that expansion of the dopamine progenitor domain is severely compromised. Next, we provide evidence that microRNAs are involved in restricting dopamine progenitor allocation. Conditional loss of Dicer1 in embryonic stem cells (ESCs) results in expanded Lmx1a/b+ progenitors. In contrast, forced elevation of miR135a2 during an early window in vivo phenocopies the Lmx1b conditional knockout. When En1::Cre, but not Shh::Cre or Nes::Cre, is used for recombination, the expansion of Lmx1a/b+ progenitors is selectively reduced. Bioinformatics and luciferase assay data suggests that miR135a2 targets Lmx1b and many genes in the Wnt signaling pathway, including Ccnd1, Gsk3b, and Tcf7l2. Consistent with this, we demonstrate that this mutant displays reductions in the size of the Lmx1b/Wnt1 domain and range of canonical Wnt signaling. We posit that microRNA modulation of the Lmx1b/Wnt axis in the early midbrain/isthmus could determine midbrain size and allocation of dopamine progenitors. Since canonical Wnt activity has recently been recognized as a key ingredient for programming ESCs towards a dopaminergic fate in vitro, these studies could impact the rational design of such protocols.
To achieve exquisitely complex behavior, the mammalian CNS is comprised of numerous neuron types, each with different functions. These distinct neuron types are produced from neural progenitors during embryonic development. How the embryonic neural progenitors are programmed to produce distinct neuron types, in the correct position and number, is a central question in developmental neuroscience. We focused on studying the embryonic production of a key neuron type, the midbrain dopamine neuron (mDA), which is particularly vulnerable in Parkinson's disease (PD). Previous works from our lab and others have shown that Wnt signaling is critical for dopamine neuron production. Here we provide a mechanism for how Wnt signaling is initiated, and then downregulated. Key to initiating this process is a transcription factor, Lmx1b, whereas important to the downregulation process is a newly characterized microRNA, miR135a2. The quantitative balance of these factors determines how many dopamine neurons are produced during embryonic development. These studies will have direct implications for efficiently programming dopamine neurons from stem cells, a key goal of regenerative approaches for PD.