Retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) relay visual information from the eye to the brain. RGCs are the first cell type generated during retinal neurogenesis. Loss of function of the transcription factor Atoh7, expressed in multipotent early neurogenic retinal progenitors leads to a selective and essentially complete loss of RGCs. Therefore, Atoh7 is considered essential for conferring competence on progenitors to generate RGCs. Despite the importance of Atoh7 in RGC specification, we find that inhibiting apoptosis in Atoh7-deficient mice by loss of function of Bax only modestly reduces RGC numbers. Single-cell RNA sequencing of Atoh7;Bax-deficient retinas shows that RGC differentiation is delayed but that the gene expression profile of RGC precursors is grossly normal. Atoh7;Baxdeficient RGCs eventually mature, fire action potentials, and incorporate into retinal circuitry but exhibit severe axonal guidance defects. This study reveals an essential role for Atoh7 in RGC survival and demonstrates Atoh7dependent and Atoh7-independent mechanisms for RGC specification.
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