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Homeoprotein Phox2b commands a somatic-to-visceral switch in cranial sensory pathways.

D’Autréaux F, Coppola E, Hirsch MR, Birchmeier C, Brunet JF.

Taste and most sensory inputs required for the feedback regulation of digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular organs are conveyed to the central nervous system by so-called “visceral” sensory neurons located in three cranial ganglia (geniculate, petrosal and nodose), and integrated in the hindbrain by relay sensory neurons located in the nucleus of the solitary tract. Visceral sensory ganglia and the nucleus of the solitary tract all depend for their formation on the pan-visceral homeodomain transcription factor Phox2b, also required in efferent neurons to the viscera. We show here, by genetically tracing Phox2b+ cells, that in the absence of the protein many visceral sensory neurons (first- and second-order) survive. However, they adopt a fate —including molecular signature, cell positions and axonal projections— akin to that of somatic sensory neurons (first- and second-order), located in the trigeminal, superior and jugular ganglia and the trigeminal sensory nuclei, that convey touch and pain sensation from the oro-facial region. Thus, the cranial sensory pathways, somatic and visceral, are related, and Phox2b serves as a developmental switch from the former to the latter.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Dec 13 ;108(50):20018-23.