The vertebrate-specific VENTX/NANOG gene empowers neural crest with ectomesenchyme potential

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Science Advances  29 Apr 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 18, eaaz1469
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz1469


During Cambrian, unipotent progenitors located at the neural (plate) border (NB) of an Olfactoria chordate embryo acquired the competence to form ectomesenchyme, pigment cells and neurons, initiating the rise of the multipotent neural crest cells (NC) specific to vertebrates. Surprisingly, the known vertebrate NB/NC transcriptional circuitry is a constrained feature also found in invertebrates. Therefore, evidence for vertebrate-specific innovations endowing vertebrate NC with multipotency is still missing. Here, we identified VENTX/NANOG and POU5/OCT4 as vertebrate-specific innovations. When VENTX was depleted in vivo and in directly-induced NC, the NC lost its early multipotent state and its skeletogenic potential, but kept sensory neuron and pigment identity, thus reminiscent of invertebrate NB precursors. In vivo, VENTX gain-of-function enabled NB specifiers to reprogram embryonic non-neural ectoderm towards early NC identity. We propose that skeletogenic NC evolved by acquiring VENTX/NANOG activity, promoting a novel multipotent progenitor regulatory state into the pre-existing sensory neuron/pigment NB program.

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