Forty zebrafish mutants with localized or general neural degeneration are described. The onset and duration of degeneration and the distribution of ectopically dying cells are specific characteristics of each mutant. Mutants are classified into four groups by these parameters. Class I: late focal neural degeneration mutants. These 18 mutants have restricted cell death mainly in the tectum and the dorsal hindbrain after 36 hours. The degeneration does not spread and disappears at later stages of development. Class II: early focal neural degeneration mutants. Ten mutants in this class exhibit transient restricted degeneration affecting mainly the diencephalon, the hindbrain and the spinal cord at 20 hours. The midbrain is less affected. The degeneration shifts to the dorsal diencephalon and the tectum at 36 hours. Class III: late spreading neural degeneration mutants. The 8 mutants in this class display a degeneration that is first seen in the tectum and subsequently spreads throughout the nervous system from 36 hours on. Class IV: early general neural degeneration mutants. This class of four mutants already shows overall cell degeneration in the nervous system at the 15-somite stage. Three of the class I mutants show a change in the pattern of gene expression in the anlage of a brain structure prior to the onset of degeneration. These results suggest that focal cell death may be a useful clue for the detection of early patterning defects of the vertebrate nervous system in regions devoid of visible landmarks.
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