Retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) innervate several specific CNS targets serving cortical and subcortical visual pathways and the entrainment of circadian rhythms. Recent studies have shown that retinal ganglion cells express specific combinations of POU- and LIM-domain transcription factors, but how these factors relate to the subsequent development of the retinofugal pathways and the functional identity of RGCs is mostly unknown. Here, we use targeted expression of an genetic axonal tracer, tau/beta-galactosidase, to examine target innervation by retinal ganglion cells expressing the POU-domain factor Brn3a. Brn3a is expressed in RGCs innervating the principal retinothalamic/retinocollicular pathway mediating cortical vision but is not expressed in RGCs of the accessory optic, pretectal, and hypothalamic pathways serving subcortical visuomotor and circadian functions. In the thalamus, Brn3a ganglion cell fibers are primarily restricted to the outer shell of the dorsal lateral geniculate, providing new evidence for the regionalization of this nucleus in rodents. Brn3a RGC axons have a relative preference for the contralateral hemisphere, but known mediators of the laterality of RGC axons are not repatterned in the absence of Brn3a. Brn3a is coexpressed extensively with the closely related factor Brn3b in the embryonic retina, and the effects of the loss of Brn3a in retinal development are not severe, suggesting partial redundancy of function in this gene class.
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