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Concept: Neural folds


During neural tube formation, neural plate cells migrate from the lateral aspects of the dorsal surface towards the midline. Elevation of the lateral regions of the neural plate produces the neural folds which then migrate to the midline where they fuse at their dorsal tips, generating a closed neural tube comprising an apicobasally polarized neuroepithelium. Our previous study identified a novel role for the axon guidance receptor neogenin in Xenopus neural tube formation. We demonstrated that loss of neogenin impeded neural fold apposition and neural tube closure. This study also revealed that neogenin, via its interaction with its ligand, RGMa, promoted cell-cell adhesion between neural plate cells as the neural folds elevated and between neuroepithelial cells within the neural tube. The second neogenin ligand, netrin-1, has been implicated in cell migration and epithelial morphogenesis. Therefore, we hypothesized that netrin-1 may also act as a ligand for neogenin during neurulation. Here we demonstrate that morpholino knockdown of Xenopus netrin-1 results in delayed neural fold apposition and neural tube closure. We further show that netrin-1 functions in the same pathway as neogenin and RGMa during neurulation. However, contrary to the role of neogenin-RGMa interactions, neogenin-netrin-1 interactions are not required for neural fold elevation or adhesion between neuroepithelial cells. Instead, our data suggest that netrin-1 contributes to the migration of the neural folds towards the midline. We conclude that both neogenin ligands work synergistically to ensure neural tube closure. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 2013.

Concepts: Axon, Embryology, Neural tube, Neurulation, Developmental neuroscience, Neural plate, Neural folds, Neural groove


Neural tube (NT) formation in the spinal region of the mammalian embryo involves a wave of “zippering” that passes down the elongating spinal axis, uniting the neural fold tips in the dorsal midline. Failure of this closure process leads to open spina bifida, a common cause of severe neurologic disability in humans. Here, we combined a tissue-level strain-mapping workflow with laser ablation of live-imaged mouse embryos to investigate the biomechanics of mammalian spinal closure. Ablation of the zippering point at the embryonic dorsal midline causes far-reaching, rapid separation of the elevating neural folds. Strain analysis revealed tissue expansion around the zippering point after ablation, but predominant tissue constriction in the caudal and ventral neural plate zone. This zone is biomechanically coupled to the zippering point by a supracellular F-actin network, which includes an actin cable running along the neural fold tips. Pharmacologic inhibition of F-actin or laser ablation of the cable causes neural fold separation. At the most advanced somite stages, when completion of spinal closure is imminent, the cable forms a continuous ring around the neuropore, and simultaneously, a new caudal-to-rostral zippering point arises. Laser ablation of this new closure initiation point causes neural fold separation, demonstrating its biomechanical activity. Failure of spinal closure in pre-spina bifida Zic2(Ku) mutant embryos is associated with altered tissue biomechanics, as indicated by greater neuropore widening after ablation. Thus, this study identifies biomechanical coupling of the entire region of active spinal neurulation in the mouse embryo as a prerequisite for successful NT closure.

Concepts: Brain, Fetus, Embryology, Neural tube, Spina bifida, Neural plate, Neural folds, Neural groove


Failure of neural tube closure in the early embryo causes neural tube defects including spina bifida. Spina bifida lesions predominate in the distal spine, particularly after exposure to the anticonvulsant valproic acid (VPA). How VPA specifically disturbs late stages of neural tube closure is unclear, as neurulation is usually viewed as a uniform ‘zippering’ process along the spine. We recently identified a novel closure site (“Closure 5”) which forms at the caudal extremity of the mouse posterior neuropore (PNP) when completion of closure is imminent. Here we investigated whether distal spina bifida in VPA-exposed embryos involves disruption of Closure 5. Exposure of E8.5 mouse embryos to VPA in whole embryo culture had marked embryotoxic effects, whereas toxic effects were less pronounced in more developmentally advanced (E9) embryos. Only 33% of embryos exposed to VPA from E9 to E10.5 achieved PNP closure (control=90%). Short-term (8h) VPA treatment diminished supra-cellular F-actin cables which normally run along the lateral neural folds, and prevented caudal PNP narrowing normally characteristic of Closure 5 formation. Laser ablation of Closure 5 caused rapid neuropore widening. Equivalent ablations of the caudal PNP in VPA treated embryos resulted in significantly less widening, suggesting VPA prevents formation of Closure 5 as a biomechanically active structure. Thus, VPA exposure prevents morphological and biomechanical conversion of the caudal extreme of the PNP during late spinal closure. Closure 5 facilitates neural fold apposition when completion of closure is imminent, such that its disruption in VPA-exposed embryos may lead to distal spina bifida.

Concepts: Brain, Developmental biology, Embryology, Neural tube, Spina bifida, Neural plate, Neural folds, Neural groove


Neural crest (NC) specification comprises an early phase, initiating immature NC progenitors formation at neural plate stage, and a later phase at neural fold stage, resulting into functional premigratory NC, able to delaminate and migrate. We found that the NC Gene Regulatory Network triggers up-regulation of pfkfb4 (6-phosphofructo-2-kinase/fructose-2,6-bisphosphatase 4) during this late specification phase. As shown in previous studies, PFKFB4 controls AKT signaling in gastrulas and glycolysis rate in adult cells. Here, we focus on PFKFB4 function in NC during and after neurulation, using time-controlled or hypomorph depletions in vivo We find that PFKFB4 is essential both for specification of functional premigratory NC and for its migration. PFKFB4-depleted embryos fail activating n-cadherin and late NC specifiers, exhibit severe migration defects, resulting in craniofacial defects. AKT signaling mediates PFKFB4 function in NC late specification, while both AKT signaling and glycolysis regulate migration. These findings highlight novel and critical roles of PFKFB4 activity in later stages of NC development, wired into the NC-GRN.

Concepts: Embryo, Embryology, Regulation, Neural tube, Neurulation, Neural plate, Neural folds


Neural tube closure is an important morphogenetic event that involves dramatic reshaping of both neural and non-neural tissues. Rho GTPases are key cytoskeletal regulators involved in cell motility and in several developmental processes, and are thus expected to play pivotal roles in neurulation. Here, we discuss 2 recent studies that shed light on the roles of distinct Rho GTPases in different tissues during neurulation. RhoA plays an essential role in regulating actomyosin dynamics in the neural epithelium of the elevating neural folds, while Rac1 is required for the formation of cell protrusions in the non-neural surface ectoderm during neural fold fusion.

Concepts: Developmental biology, Animal, Embryology, Ectoderm, Neural tube, Neural plate, Neural folds, Neural groove


Many organs form by invaginating and rolling flat epithelial cell-sheets into tubes. Invagination of the ventral midline of the neural plate forms the median hinge point (MHP), an event that elevates the neural folds and is essential for neural tube closure (NTC). MHP formation involves dynamic spatiotemporal modulations of cell shape, but how these are achieved is not understood. We show that cell cycle dependent BMP and TGFβ antagonism elicits MHP formation by dynamically regulating interactions between apical (PAR complex) and basolateral (LGL) polarity proteins. TGFβ and BMP activated receptor ®-SMADs (pSMAD2,3, pSMAD1,5,8) undergo cell cycle dependent modulations and nucleo-cytosolic shuttling along the apicobasal axis of the neural plate. Non-canonical TGFβ and BMP activity in the cytosol determines whether pSMAD2,3 or pSMAD1,5,8 associates with the tight junction (PAR complex) or with LGL, and whether cell-shape changes can occur at the MHP. Thus BMP and TGFβ interactions with polarity proteins dynamically modulate MHP formation by regulating r-SMAD competition for tight junctions and r-SMAD sequestration by LGL.

Concepts: Protein, Cell nucleus, Cell, Cell membrane, Neural tube, Tight junction, Neural plate, Neural folds


Bending of the neural plate at paired dorsolateral hinge points (DLHPs) is required for neural tube closure in the spinal region of the mouse embryo. As a step towards understanding the morphogenetic mechanism of DLHP development, we examined variations in neural plate cellular architecture and proliferation during closure. Neuroepithelial cells within the median hinge point (MHP) contain nuclei that are mainly basally located and undergo relatively slow proliferation, with a 7h cell cycle length. In contrast, cells in the dorsolateral neuroepithelium, including the DLHP, exhibit nuclei distributed throughout the apico-basal axis and undergo rapid proliferation, with a 4h cell cycle length. As the neural folds elevate, cell numbers increase to a greater extent in the dorsolateral neural plate that contacts the surface ectoderm, compared with the more ventromedial neural plate where cells contact paraxial mesoderm and notochord. This marked increase in dorsolateral cell number cannot be accounted for solely on the basis of enhanced cell proliferation in this region. We hypothesised that neuroepithelial cells may translocate in a ventral-to-dorsal direction as DLHP formation occurs, and this was confirmed by vital cell labelling in cultured embryos. The translocation of cells into the neural fold, together with its more rapid cell proliferation, leads to an increase in cell density dorsolaterally compared with the more ventromedial neural plate. These findings suggest a model in which DLHP formation may proceed through ‘buckling’ of the neuroepithelium at a dorso-ventral boundary marked by a change in cell-packing density.

Concepts: Cell nucleus, Embryo, Developmental biology, Embryology, Neural tube, Neural plate, Neural folds, Neural groove


The formation of the embryonic brain and spinal cord begins as the neural plate bends to form the neural folds, which meet and fuse to close the neural tube. The neural ectoderm and surrounding tissues also coordinate proliferation, differentiation, and patterning. This highly orchestrated process is susceptible to disruption, leading to neural tube defects (NTDs), a common birth defect. Here, we highlight genetic and epigenetic contributions to neural tube closure. We describe an online database we created as a resource for researchers, geneticists, and clinicians. Neural tube closure is sensitive to environmental influences, and we discuss disruptive causes, preventative measures, and possible mechanisms. New technologies will move beyond candidate genes in small cohort studies toward unbiased discoveries in sporadic NTD cases. This will uncover the genetic complexity of NTDs and critical gene-gene interactions. Animal models can reveal the causative nature of genetic variants, the genetic interrelationships, and the mechanisms underlying environmental influences. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Genetics Volume 48 is November 23, 2014. Please see for revised estimates.

Concepts: Central nervous system, Genetics, Gene expression, Developmental biology, Embryology, Neural tube, Neural plate, Neural folds