Proper connectivity of the nervous system requires temporal and spatial control of axon guidance signaling. As commissural axons navigate across the CNS midline, ROBO-mediated repulsion has traditionally been thought to be repressed before crossing, and then to become upregulated after crossing. The regulation of the ROBO receptors involves multiple mechanisms that control protein expression, trafficking, and activity. Here, we report that mammalian ROBO1 and ROBO2 are not uniformly inhibited precrossing and are instead subject to additional temporal control via alternative splicing at a conserved microexon. The NOVA splicing factors regulate the developmental expression of ROBO1 and ROBO2 variants with small sequence differences and distinct guidance activities. As a result, ROBO-mediated axonal repulsion is activated early in development to prevent premature crossing and becomes inhibited later to allow crossing. Postcrossing, the ROBO1 and ROBO2 isoforms are disinhibited to prevent midline reentry and to guide postcrossing commissural axons to distinct mediolateral positions.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by grants: Boettcher Foundation (ZC); Linda Crnic Institute (ZC); National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01EY024261 (HJJ). We thank Yuhki Saito and Robert B Darnell for reagents, Yudong Teng at the MCDB transgenic facility for generating knockout mice, Caleb Anderson, Maxwell L Saal, and Kelsey R Arbogast for technical assistance, Lee Niswander for critical comments, and Aileen Sewell and Heidi Chial for editing.