Neuronal differentiation is a complex process that involves a plethora of regulatory steps. To identify transcription factors that influence neuronal differentiation we developed a high throughput screen using embryonic stem (ES) cells. Seven-hundred human transcription factor clones were stably introduced into mouse ES (mES) cells and screened for their ability to induce neuronal differentiation of mES cells. Twenty-four factors that are capable of inducing neuronal differentiation were identified, including four known effectors of neuronal differentiation, 11 factors with limited evidence of involvement in regulating neuronal differentiation, and nine novel factors. One transcription factor, Oct-2, was studied in detail and found to be a bifunctional regulator: It can either repress or induce neuronal differentiation, depending on the particular isoform. Ectopic expression experiments demonstrate that isoform Oct-2.4 represses neuronal differentiation, whereas Oct-2.2 activates neuron formation. Consistent with a role in neuronal differentiation, Oct-2.2 expression is induced during differentiation, and cells depleted of Oct-2 and its homolog Oct-1 have a reduced capacity to differentiate into neurons. Our results reveal a number of transcription factors potentially important for mammalian neuronal differentiation, and indicate that Oct-2 may serve as a binary switch to repress differentiation in precursor cells and induce neuronal differentiation later during neuronal development
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