The enteric nervous system
The enteric nervous system (ENS), the intrinsic innervation of the gastrointestinal tract, consists of numerous types of neurons, and glial cells, that are distributed in two intramuscular plexuses that extend along the entire length of the gut and control co-ordinated smooth muscle contractile activity and other gut functions. All enteric neurons and glia are derived from neural crest cells (NCC). Vagal (hindbrain) level NCC provide the majority of enteric precursors along the entire length of the gut, while a lesser contribution, that is restricted to the hindgut, arises from the sacral region of the neuraxis. After leaving the dorsal neural tube NCC undergo extensive migration, proliferation, survival and differentiation in order to form a functional ENS. This article reviews the molecular mechanisms underlying these key developmental processes and highlights the major groups of molecules that affect enteric NCC proliferation and survival (Ret/Gdnf and EdnrB/Et-3 pathways, Sox10 and Phox2b transcription factors), cell migration (Ret and EdnrB signalling, semaphorin 3A, cell adhesion molecules, Rho GTPases), and the development of enteric neuronal subtypes and morphologies (Mash1, Gdnf/neurturin, BMPs, Hand2, retinoic acid). Finally, looking to the future, we discuss the need to translate the wealth of data gleaned from animal studies to the clinical area and thus better understand, and develop treatments for, congenital human diseases affecting the ENS.