Vertebrate hearing organs manifest cellular asymmetries across the radial axis that underlie afferent versus efferent circuits between the inner ear and the brain. Therefore, understanding the molecular control of patterning across this axis has important functional implications. Radial axis patterning begins before the cells become postmitotic and is likely linked to the onset of asymmetric expression of secreted factors adjacent to the sensory primordium. This study explores one such asymmetrically expressed gene, Wnt9a, which becomes restricted to the neural edge of the avian auditory organ, the basilar papilla, by embryonic day 5 (E5). Radial patterning is disrupted when Wnt9a is overexpressed throughout the prosensory domain beginning on E3. Sexes were pooled for analysis and sex differences were not studied. Analysis of gene expression and afferent innervation on E6 suggests that ectopic Wnt9a expands the neural-side fate, possibly by re-specifying the abneural fate. RNA sequencing reveals quantitative changes, not only in Wnt-pathway genes, but also in genes involved in axon guidance and cytoskeletal remodeling. By E18, these early patterning effects are manifest as profound changes in cell fates [short hair cells (HCs) are missing], ribbon synapse numbers, outward ionic currents, and efferent innervation. These observations suggest that Wnt9a may be one of the molecules responsible for breaking symmetry across the radial axis of the avian auditory organ. Indirectly, Wnt9a can regulate the mature phenotype whereby afferent axons predominantly innervate neural-side tall HCs, resulting in more ribbon synapses per HC compared with abneural-side short HCs with few ribbons and large efferent synapses.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Wnts are a class of secreted factors that are best known for stimulating cell division in development and cancer. However, in certain contexts during development, Wnt-expressing cells can direct neighboring cells to take on specific fates. This study suggests that the Wnt9a ligand may play such a role in the developing hearing organ of the bird cochlea. This was shown through patterning defects that occur in response to the overexpression of Wnt9a. This manipulation increased one type of sensory hair cell (tall HCs) at the expense of another (short HCs) that is usually located furthest from the Wnt9a source. The extraneous tall HCs that replaced short HCs showed some physiological properties and neuronal connections consistent with a fate switch.

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