The bHLH transcription factors OLIG2 and OLIG1 couple neuronal and glial subtype specification.
OLIG1 and OLIG2 are basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors expressed in the pMN domain of the spinal cord, which sequentially generates motoneurons and oligodendrocytes. In Olig1/2 double-mutant mice, motoneurons are largely eliminated, and oligodendrocyte differentiation is abolished. Lineage tracing data suggest that Olig1(-/-)2(-/-) pMN progenitors instead generate V2 interneurons and then astrocytes. This apparent conversion likely reflects independent roles for OLIG1/2 in specifying motoneuron and oligodendrocyte fates. Olig genes therefore couple neuronal and glial subtype specification, unlike proneural bHLH factors that control the neuron versus glia decision. Our results suggest that in the spinal cord, Olig and proneural genes comprise a combinatorial code for the specification of neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes, the three fundamental cell types of the central nervous system.