The Homeodomain Transcription Factor NKX2.1 Is Essential for the Early Specification of Melanocortin Neuron Identity and Activates Pomc Expression in the Developing Hypothalamus
Orquera, D.P.; Tavella, M.B.én.; de Souza, F.S.J.; Nasif, S.ía.; Low, M.J.; Rubinstein, M.
Journal of Neuroscience the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience 39(21): 4023-4035
ISSN/ISBN: 1529-2401 PMID: 30886014 DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.2924-18.2019
Food intake is tightly regulated by a group of neurons present in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, which release Pomc-encoded melanocortins, the absence of which induces marked hyperphagia and early-onset obesity. Although the relevance of hypothalamic POMC neurons in the regulation of body weight and energy balance is well appreciated, little is known about the transcription factors that establish the melanocortin neuron identity during brain development and its phenotypic maintenance in postnatal life. Here, we report that the transcription factor NKX2.1 is present in mouse hypothalamic POMC neurons from early development to adulthood. Electromobility shift assays showed that NKX2.1 binds in vitro to NKX binding motifs present in the neuronal Pomc enhancers nPE1 and nPE2 and chromatin immunoprecipitation assays detected in vivo binding of NKX2.1 to nPE1 and nPE2 in mouse hypothalamic extracts. Transgenic and mutant studies performed in mouse embryos of either sex and adult males showed that the NKX motifs present in nPE1 and nPE2 are essential for their transcriptional enhancer activity. The conditional early inactivation of Nkx2.1 in the ventral hypothalamus prevented the onset of Pomc expression. Selective Nkx2.1 ablation from POMC neurons decreased Pomc expression in adult males and mildly increased their body weight and adiposity. Our results demonstrate that NKX2.1 is necessary to activate Pomc expression by binding to conserved canonical NKX motifs present in nPE1 and nPE2. Therefore, NKX2.1 plays a critical role in the early establishment of hypothalamic melanocortin neuron identity and participates in the maintenance of Pomc expression levels during adulthood.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Food intake and body weight regulation depend on hypothalamic neurons that release satiety-inducing neuropeptides, known as melanocortins. Central melanocortins are encoded byPomc, and Pomc mutations may lead to hyperphagia and severe obesity. Although the importance of central melanocortins is well appreciated, the genetic program that establishes and maintains fully functional POMC neurons remains to be explored. Here, we combined molecular, genetic, developmental, and functional studies that led to the discovery of NKX2.1, a transcription factor that participates in the early morphogenesis of the developing hypothalamus, as a key player in establishing the early identity of melanocortin neurons by activating Pomc expression. Thus, Nkx2.1 adds to the growing list of genes that participate in body weight regulation and adiposity.