Generation of cell diversity in the vertebrate central nervous system starts during gastrulation stages in the ectodermal germ layer and involves specialized cell groups, such as the organizer located at the midbrain-hindbrain boundary (MHB). Mutations in the zebrafish no isthmus (noi) gene alter development of the MHB, and affect the pax2.1 gene (formerly pax(zf-b)). Analysis of the structure of pax2.1 reveals at least 12 normal splice variants. The noi alleles can be arranged, by molecular and phenotypic criteria, into a series of five alleles of differing strength, ranging from a null allele to weak alleles. In keeping with a role in development of the MHB organizer, gene expression is already affected in the MHB primordium of the gastrula neural ectoderm in noi mutants. eng3 activation is completely and eng2 activation is strongly dependent on noi function. In contrast, onset of wnt1, fgf8 and her5 expression occurs normally in the null mutants, but is eliminated later on. Our observations suggest that three signaling pathways, involving pax2.1, wnt1 and fgf8, are activated independently in early anterior-posterior patterning of this area. In addition, analysis of the allelic series unexpectedly suggests that noi activity is also required during dorsal-ventral patterning of the MHB in somitogenesis stages, and possibly in a later eng expression phase. We propose that noi/pax2.1 participates in sequential signaling processes as a key integrator of midbrain-hindbrain boundary development.
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