Astrocytes follow ganglion cell axons to establish an angiogenic template during retinal development

Matthew L. O'Sullivan, Vanessa M. Puñal, Patrick C. Kerstein, Joseph A. Brzezinski, Tom Glaser, Kevin M. Wright, Jeremy N. Kay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Immature astrocytes and blood vessels enter the developing mammalian retina at the optic nerve head and migrate peripherally to colonize the entire retinal nerve fiber layer (RNFL). Retinal vascularization is arrested in retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a major cause of bilateral blindness in children. Despite their importance in normal development and ROP, the factors that control vascularization of the retina remain poorly understood. Because astrocytes form a reticular network that appears to provide a substrate for migrating endothelial cells, they have long been proposed to guide angiogenesis. However, whether astrocytes do in fact impose a spatial pattern on developing vessels remains unclear, and how astrocytes themselves are guided is unknown. Here we explore the cellular mechanisms that ensure complete retinal coverage by astrocytes and blood vessels in mouse. We find that migrating astrocytes associate closely with the axons of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), their neighbors in the RNFL. Analysis of Robo1; Robo2 mutants, in which RGC axon guidance is disrupted, and Math5 (Atoh7) mutants, which lack RGCs, reveals that RGCs provide directional information to migrating astrocytes that sets them on a centrifugal trajectory. Without this guidance, astrocytes exhibit polarization defects, fail to colonize the peripheral retina, and display abnormal fine-scale spatial patterning. Furthermore, using cell type-specific chemical–genetic tools to selectively ablate astrocytes, we show that the astrocyte template is required for angiogenesis and vessel patterning. Our results are consistent with a model whereby RGC axons guide formation of an astrocytic network that subsequently directs vessel development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1697-1716
Number of pages20
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • angiogenesis
  • astrocyte
  • migration
  • mouse
  • retinal ganglion cell

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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