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Distinct roles for GFRα1 and GFRα2 signalling in different cranial parasympathetic ganglia in vivo


: Dr Matti S. Airaksinen, as above.


Neurturin (NRTN), signalling via the GDNF family receptor α2 (GFRα2) and Ret tyrosine kinase, has recently been identified as an essential target-derived factor for many parasympathetic neurons. NRTN is expressed in salivary and lacrimal glands, while GFRα2 and Ret are expressed in the corresponding submandibular, otic and sphenopalatine ganglia. Here, we have characterized in more detail the role of GDNF and NRTN signalling in the development of cranial parasympathetic neurons and their target innervation. Gfra1 mRNA was expressed at E12 but not in newborn cranial parasympathetic ganglia, while Gfra2 mRNA and protein were strongly expressed in newborn and adult cranial parasympathetic neurons and their projections, respectively. In newborn GFRα1- or Ret-deficient mice, where many submandibular ganglion neurons were still present, the otic and sphenopalatine ganglia were completely missing. In contrast, in newborn GFRα2-deficient mice, most neurons in all these ganglia were present. In these mice, the loss and atrophy of the submandibular and otic neurons were amplified postnatally, accompanied by complete loss of innervation in some target regions and preservation in others. Surprisingly, GFRα2-deficient sphenopalatine neurons, whose targets were completely uninnervated, were not reduced in number and only slightly atrophied. Thus, GDNF signalling via GFRα1/Ret is essential in the early gangliogenesis of some, but not all, cranial parasympathetic neurons, whereas NRTN signalling through GFRα2/Ret is essential for the development and maintenance of parasympathetic target innervation. These results indicate that GDNF and NRTN have distinct functions in developing parasympathetic neurons, and suggest heterogeneity among and within different parasympathetic ganglia.