The Caenorhabditis elegans POU protein UNC-86 specifies the HSN motor neurons, which are required for egg-laying, and six mechanosensory neurons. To investigate how UNC-86 controls neuronal specification, we characterized two unc-86 mutants that do not respond to touch but show wild-type egg-laying behavior. Residues P145 and L195, which are altered by these mutations, are located in the POU-specific domain and abolish the physical interaction of UNC-86 with the LIM homeodomain protein, MEC-3. This results in a failure to maintain mec-3 expression and in loss of expression of the mechanosensory neuron-specific gene, mec-2. unc-86-dependent expression of genes in other neurons is not impaired. We conclude that distinct residues in the POU domain of UNC-86 are involved in modulating UNC-86 activity during its specification of different neurons. A structural model of the UNC-86 POU domain, including base pairs and amino acid residues required for MEC-3 interaction, revealed that P145 and L195 are part of a hydrophobic pocket which is similar to the OCA-B-binding domain of the mammalian POU protein, Oct-1.
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