Transcriptional regulatory networks that control the morphologic and functional diversity of mammalian neurons are still largely undefined. Here we dissect the roles of the highly homologous POU-domain transcription factors Brn3a and Brn3b in retinal ganglion cell (RGC) development and function using conditional Brn3a and Brn3b alleles that permit the visualization of individual wild-type or mutant cells. We show that Brn3a- and Brn3b-expressing RGCs exhibit overlapping but distinct dendritic stratifications and central projections. Deletion of Brn3a alters dendritic stratification and the ratio of monostratified:bistratified RGCs, with little or no change in central projections. In contrast, deletion of Brn3b leads to RGC transdifferentiation and loss, axon defects in the eye and brain, and defects in central projections that differentially compromise a variety of visually driven behaviors. These findings reveal distinct roles for Brn3a and Brn3b in programming RGC diversity, and they illustrate the broad utility of germline methods for genetically manipulating and visualizing individual identified mammalian neurons.
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