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Cbln1 directs axon targeting by corticospinal neurons specifically toward thoraco-lumbar spinal cord
Corticospinal neurons (CSN) are centrally required for skilled voluntary movement, which necessitates that they establish precise subcerebral connectivity with the brainstem and spinal cord. However, molecular controls regulating specificity of this projection targeting remain largely unknown. We previously identified that developing CSN subpopulations exhibit striking axon targeting specificity in the spinal white matter. These CSN subpopulations with segmentally distinct spinal projections are also molecularly distinct; a subset of differentially expressed genes between these distinct CSN subpopulations regulate differential axon projection targeting. Rostrolateral CSN extend axons exclusively to bulbar-cervical segments (CSNBC-lat), while caudomedial CSN (CSNmedial) are more heterogeneous, with distinct, intermingled subpopulations extending axons to either bulbar-cervical or thoraco-lumbar segments. Here, we report, in male and female mice, that Cerebellin 1 (Cbln1) is expressed specifically by CSN in medial, but not lateral, sensorimotor cortex. Cbln1 shows highly dynamic temporal expression, with Cbln1 levels in CSN highest during the period of peak axon extension toward thoraco-lumbar segments. Using gain-of-function experiments, we identify that Cbln1 is sufficient to direct thoraco-lumbar axon extension by CSN. Mis-expression of Cbln1 in CSNBC-lat either by in utero electroporation, or by postmitotic AAV-mediated gene delivery, re-directs these axons past their normal bulbar-cervical targets toward thoracic segments. Further, Cbln1 overexpression in postmitotic CSNmedial increases the number of CSNmedial axons that extend past cervical segments into the thoracic cord. Collectively, these results identify that Cbln1 functions as a potent molecular control over thoraco-lumbar CSN axon extension, part of an integrated network of controls over segmentally-specific CSN axon projection targeting.Significance StatementCorticospinal neurons (CSN) exhibit remarkable diversity and precision of axonal projections to targets in the brainstem and distinct spinal segments; the molecular basis for this targeting diversity is largely unknown. CSN subpopulations projecting to distinct targets are also molecularly distinguishable. Distinct subpopulations degenerate in specific motor neuron diseases, further suggesting that intrinsic molecular differences might underlie differential vulnerability to disease. Here, we identify a novel molecular control, Cbln1, expressed by CSN extending axons to thoraco-lumbar spinal segments. Cbln1 is sufficient, but not required, for CSN axon extension toward distal spinal segments, and Cbln1 expression is controlled by recently identified, CSN-intrinsic regulators of axon extension. Our results identify that Cbln1, together with other regulators, coordinates segmentally precise CSN axon targeting.