Activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways is critically involved in naturally occurring programmed cell death of motoneurons during development, but the upstream mediators remain undetermined. We found that mice deficient in ZPK, also called DLK (ZPK/DLK), an upstream kinase in these pathways, have twice as many spinal motoneurons as do their wild-type littermates. Nuclear HB9/MNX1-positive motoneuron pools were generated similarly in the spinal cord of both ZPK/DLK-deficient and wild-type embryos. Thereafter, however, significantly less apoptotic motoneurons were found in ZPK/DLK-deficient embryos compared with wild-type embryos, resulting in retention of excess numbers of motoneurons after birth. Notably, these excess motoneurons remained viable without atrophic changes in the ZPK/DLK-deficient mice surviving into adulthood. Analysis of the diaphragm and the phrenic nerve revealed that clustering and innervation of neuromuscular junctions were indistinguishable between ZPK/DLK-deficient and wild-type mice, whereas the proximal portion of the phrenic nerve of ZPK/DLK-deficient mice contained significantly more axons than the distal portion. This result supports the hypothesis that some excess ZPK/DLK-deficient motoneurons survived without atrophy despite failure to establish axonal contact with their targets. This study provides compelling evidence for a critical role for ZPK/DLK in naturally occurring programmed cell death of motoneurons and suggests that ZPK/DLK could become a strategic therapeutic target in motor neuron diseases in which aberrant activation of the apoptogenic cascade is involved.
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