Dlk1 Promotes a Fast Motor Neuron Biophysical Signature Required for Peak Force Execution

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Science  14 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6176, pp. 1264-1266
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246448

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Quick, Quick, Slow

The slow muscles of postural stability and the fast muscles of running and jumping are driven by motor neurons that are differentiated by fast and slow biophysical properties. By retrograde labeling of mouse and chick muscle fibers, Müller et al. (p. 1264) characterized the developmental distinctions between fast and slow motor neurons. A transmembrane protein, when over- or underexpressed, was discovered to drive specification of the motor neurons and a downstream effector specified some, but not all, of the biophysical attributes.


Motor neurons, which relay neural commands to drive skeletal muscle movements, encompass types ranging from “slow” to “fast,” whose biophysical properties govern the timing, gradation, and amplitude of muscle force. Here we identify the noncanonical Notch ligand Delta-like homolog 1 (Dlk1) as a determinant of motor neuron functional diversification. Dlk1, expressed by ~30% of motor neurons, is necessary and sufficient to promote a fast biophysical signature in the mouse and chick. Dlk1 suppresses Notch signaling and activates expression of the K+ channel subunit Kcng4 to modulate delayed-rectifier currents. Dlk1 inactivation comprehensively shifts motor neurons toward slow biophysical and transcriptome signatures, while abolishing peak force outputs. Our findings provide insights into the development of motor neuron functional diversity and its contribution to the execution of movements.

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