The different sensory modalities temperature, pain, touch and muscle proprioception are carried by somatosensory neurons of the dorsal root ganglia. Study of this system is hampered by the lack of molecular markers for many of these neuronal sub-types. In order to detect genes expressed in sub-populations of somatosensory neurons, gene profiling was carried out on wild-type and TrkA mutant neonatal dorsal root ganglia (DRG) using SAGE (serial analysis of gene expression) methodology. Thermo-nociceptors constitute up to 80 % of the neurons in the DRG. In TrkA mutant DRGs, the nociceptor sub-class of sensory neurons is lost due to absence of nerve growth factor survival signaling through its receptor TrkA. Thus, comparison of wild-type and TrkA mutants allows the identification of transcripts preferentially expressed in the nociceptor or mechano-proprioceptor subclasses, respectively.
Our comparison revealed 240 genes differentially expressed between the two tissues (P < 0.01). Some of these genes, CGRP, Scn10a are known markers of sensory neuron sub-types. Several potential markers of sub-populations, Dok4, Crip2 and Grik1/GluR5 were further analyzed by quantitative RT-PCR and double labeling with TrkA,-B,-C, c-ret, parvalbumin and isolectin B4, known markers of DRG neuron sub-types. Expression of Grik1/GluR5 was restricted to the isolectin B4+ nociceptive population, while Dok4 and Crip2 had broader expression profiles. Crip2 expression was however excluded from the proprioceptor sub-population.
We have identified and characterized the detailed expression patterns of three genes in the developing DRG, placing them in the context of the known major neuronal sub-types defined by molecular markers. Further analysis of differentially expressed genes in this tissue promises to extend our knowledge of the molecular diversity of different cell types and forms the basis for understanding their particular functional specificities.