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Theses Doctoral

Regulatory logic of cellular diversity in the nervous system

Closser, Michael Edward

During nervous system development, thousands of distinct cell types are generated and assembled into complex circuits that control all aspects of animal cognition and behavior. Understanding what these diverse cells are, how they are generated, and what they do in the context of circuits and behavior form the fundamental efforts of the field of neuroscience. In this thesis, I investigate how the genomic organization of regulatory elements informs specific patterns of gene expression in the nervous system. In particular, I examine how distinct combinations of transcription factors interpret information encoded in the genome to control global gene expression programs in a cell-type-specific manner. In Chapter Two, I describe the establishment of a developmentally inspired transcriptional programming system to generate spinal and cranial motor neurons directly from mouse embryonic stem cells. Programmed motor neurons acquire general characteristics that mirror their in vivo counterparts, providing a robust system for studying cell fate specification in the nervous system. Combinatorial expression of cell-type-specific programming factors informs context-dependent enhancer binding and acquisition of appropriate cell-type-specific molecular and functional properties. In Chapter Three, I take advantage of this robust, experimentally accessible system to probe the chromatin-level organization and regulatory principles controlling specificity of motor neuron gene expression programs. Motor neuron genes are controlled by multiple distantly distributed enhancer constellations stretched across large regulatory domains. Using this motor neuron specification model, I discovered a unique regulatory organization controlling gene expression in the nervous system, whereby neuronal genes are controlled from uniquely complex regulatory domains acting over large distances. In Chapter Four, I extrapolate on the insights gained from studying motor neurons at a single point in time to investigate the dynamics of the regulatory environment during neuronal maturation. We demonstrate that enhancers are highly dynamic even after postmitotic specification. The dynamic nature of enhancers is dependent on combinatorial binding with new transcriptional cofactors. Overall, my results suggest that neuronal gene expression programs within a single cell type are regulated in a highly dynamic fashion by a complex set of enhancers. I propose that during development the immense cellular complexity of the nervous system is established and maintained by correspondingly complex repertoire of enhancers.

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Academic Units
Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies
Thesis Advisors
Wichterle, Hynek
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
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