The midline organ the notochord and its overlying dorsal neural tube are the most prominent features of the chordate body plan. Although the molecular mechanisms involved in the formation of the central nervous system (CNS) have been studied extensively in vertebrate embryos, none of the genes that are expressed exclusively in notochord cells has been shown to function in this process. Here, we report a gene in the urochordate Ciona intestinalis encoding a fibrinogen-like protein that plays a pivotal role in the notochord-dependent positioning of neuronal cells. While this gene (Ci-fibrn) is expressed exclusively in notochord cells, its protein product is not confined to these cells but is distributed underneath the CNS as fibril-like protrusions. We demonstrated that Ci-fibrn interacts physically and functionally with Ci-Notch that is expressed in the central nervous system, and that the correct distribution of Ci-fibrn protein is dependent on Notch signaling. Disturbance of the Ci-fibrn distribution caused an abnormal positioning of neuronal cells and an abnormal track of axon extension. Therefore, it is highly likely that the interaction between the notochord-based fibrinogen-like protein and the neural tube-based Notch signaling plays an essential role in the proper patterning of CNS.
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