Although neuron generation is precisely regulated during ontogeny, little is known about underlying mechanisms. In addition, relationships between precursor proliferation and the apparent sequence of developmental processes, including cell migration, neurite elaboration, transmitter expression and synaptogenesis remain unknown. To address these issues, we used a fully defined neuronal cell culture system derived from embryonic rat sympathetic ganglia (DiCicco-Bloom, E., and I. B. Black. 1988. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 85:4066-4070) in which precursors enter the mitotic cycle. We now find that, in addition to synthesizing DNA, neuroblasts also underwent division in culture, allowing analysis of developmental relationships and mitotic regulation. Our observations indicate that mitotic neuroblasts expressed a wide array of neuron-specific characteristics including extension of neuritic processes with growth cones, elaboration of neurotransmitter enzyme, synthesis and transport of transmitter vesicles and organization of transmitter release sites. These data suggest that neuroblasts in the cell cycle may simultaneously differentiate. Consequently, the apparent sequence of ontogenetic processes is not an immutable, intrinsic neuronal program. How, then, are diverse developmental events coordinated? Our observations indicate that neuroblast mitosis is regulated by a small number of epigenetic factors, including insulin and EGF. Since these signals also influence other processes in developing neurons, epigenetic regulation normally may synchronize diverse ontogenetic events.
To test the effects of isolation on adult neurons, we investigated the fine structure and synaptic activity of rod cells dissociated from the mature salamander retina and maintained in vitro. First, freshly isolated rod cells appeared remarkably similar to their counterparts in the intact retina: the outer segment retained its stack of membranous disks and the inner segment contained its normal complements of organelles. Some reorganization of the cell surface, however, was observed: (a) radial fins, present at the level of the cell body, were lost; and (b) the apical and distal surfaces of the inner and outer segments, respectively became broadly fused. Second, the synaptic endings or pedicles retained their presynaptic active zones: reconstruction of serially sectioned pedicles by using three-dimensional computer graphics revealed that 73% of the synaptic ribbons remained attached to the plasmalemma either at the cell surface or along its invaginations. Finally, tracer experiments that used horseradish peroxidase demonstrated that dissociated rod cells recycled synaptic vesicle membrane in the dark and thus probably released transmitter by exocytosis. Under optimal conditions, a maximum of 40% of the synaptic vesicles within the pedicle were labeled. As in the intact retina, uptake of horseradish peroxidase was suppressed by light. Thus, freshly dissociated receptor neurons retained many of their adult morphological and physiological characteristics. In long-term culture, the photoreceptors tended to round up; however, active zones were present even 2 wk after removal of the postsynaptic processes.