The ability of an animal to carry out its normal behavioral repertoire requires generation of an enormous diversity of neurons and glia. The relative simplicity of the spinal cord makes this an especially attractive part of the nervous system for addressing questions about the development of vertebrate neural specification and function. The last decade has witnessed an explosion in our understanding of spinal cord development and the functional interactions among spinal cord neurons and glia. Cellular, genetic, molecular, physiological and behavioral studies in zebrafish have all been important in providing insights into questions that remained unanswered by studies from other vertebrate model organisms. This is the case because many zebrafish spinal neurons can be individually identified and followed over time in living embryos and larvae. In this review, we discuss what is currently known about the cellular, genetic and molecular mechanisms involved in specifying distinct cell types in the zebrafish spinal cord and how these cells establish the functional circuitry that mediates particular behaviors. We start by describing the early signals and morphogenetic movements that form the nervous system, and in particular, the spinal cord. We then provide an overview of the cell types within the spinal cord and describe how they are specified and patterned. We begin ventrally with floor plate and proceed dorsally, through motoneurons and oligodendrocytes, interneurons, astrocytes and radial glia, spinal sensory neurons and neural crest. We next describe axon pathfinding of spinal neurons. Finally, we discuss the roles of particular spinal cord neurons in specific behaviors.
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