We describe Ciona intestinalis gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-ergic neurons during development, studying the expression pattern of Ci-GAD (glutamic acid decarboxylase: GABA synthesizing enzyme) by in situ hybridization. Moreover, we cloned two GABA(B) receptor subunits (Ci-GABA(B)Rs), and a phylogenetic analysis (neighbor-joining method) suggested that they clustered with their vertebrate counterparts. We compared Ci-GAD and Ci-GABA(B)Rs expression patterns in C. intestinalis embryos and larvae. At the tailbud stage, Ci-GAD expression was widely detected in central and peripheral nervous system (CNS/PNS) precursors, whereas Ci-GABA(B)Rs expression was evident at the level of the precursors of the visceral ganglion. GABA was localized by immunohistochemistry at the same developmental stage. In the larva, Ci-GAD transcripts and GABA immunofluorescence were also detected throughout the CNS and in some neurons of the PNS, whereas transcripts of both GABA(B) receptor subunits were found mainly in the CNS. The expression pattern of Ci-GABA(B)Rs appeared restricted to Ci-GAD-positive territories in the sensory vesicle, whereas, in the visceral ganglion, Ci-GABA(B)Rs transcripts were found in ventral motoneurons that did not express Ci-GAD. Insofar as GABAergic neurons are widely distributed also in the CNS and PNS of vertebrates and other invertebrate chordates, it seems likely that GABA signaling was extensively present in the protochordate nervous system. Results from this work show that GABA is the most widespread inhibitory neurotransmitter in C. intestinalis nervous system and that it can signal through GABA(B) receptors both pre- and postsynaptically to modulate different sensory inputs and subsequent swimming activity.
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