Differential neurite outgrowth is required for axon specification by cultured hippocampal neurons


Address correspondence and reprint requests to Hideaki Yamamoto, Department of Life Science and Biotechnology, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, 2-24-16 Nakacho, Koganei-shi, Tokyo 184-8588, Japan. E-mail: h-yama@cc.tuat.ac.jp.


Formation of an axon is the first morphological evidence of neuronal polarization, visible as a profound outgrowth of the axon compared with sibling neurites. One unsolved question on the mechanism of axon formation is the role of axon outgrowth in axon specification. This question was difficult to assess, because neurons freely extend their neurites in a conventional culture. Here, we leveraged surface nano/micro-modification techniques to fabricate a template substrate for constraining neurite lengths of cultured neurons. Using the template, we asked (i) Do neurons polarize even if all neurites cannot grow sufficiently long? (ii) Would the neurite be fated to become an axon if only one was allowed to grow long? A pattern with symmetrical short paths (20 μm) was used to address the former question, and an asymmetrical pattern with one path extended to 100 μm for the latter. Axon formation was evaluated by tau-1/MAP2 immunostaining and live-cell imaging of constitutively-active kinesin-1. We found that (1) neurons cannot polarize when extension of all neurites is restricted and that (2) when only a single neurite is permitted to grow long, neurons polarize and the longest neurite becomes the axon. These results provide clear evidence that axon outgrowth is required for its specification.