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Transcriptional control of behavior: Engrailed knockout with RNAi changes cockroach escape trajectories

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The cerci of the cockroach are covered with identified sensory hairs, which detect air movements. The sensory neurons which innervate these hairs synapse with giant interneurons (GIs) in the terminal ganglion which in turn synapse with interneurons and leg motorneurons in thoracic ganglia. This neural circuit mediates the animal's escape behavior. The transcription factor Engrailed (En) is expressed only in the medially born sensory neurons, which suggested it could work as a positional determinant of sensory neuron identity. Previously, we used RNA interference (RNAi) to abolish En expression, and found that the axonal arborization and synaptic outputs of an identified En-positive sensory neuron changed so that it came to resemble a nearby En-negative cell, which was itself unaffected. We thus demonstrated directly that En controls synaptic choice, as well as axon projections. Is escape behavior affected as a result of this mis-wiring? Adult cockroaches keep each escape unpredictable by running along one of a set of preferred escape trajectories (ETs) at fixed angles from the direction of the threatening stimulus. The probability of selecting a particular ET is influenced by wind direction. Early instar juvenile cockroaches use the same ETs as the adults and are amenable to RNAi. En knockout significantly perturbs the animals' perception of posterior wind, altering the choice of ETs to one more appropriate for anterior wind. This is the first time that it has been shown that knockout of a transcription factor controlling synaptic connectivity can alter the perception of a directional stimulus.

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