ABSTRACT: The developmental mechanisms through which the cerebral cortex increased in size and complexity during primate evolution are essentially unknown. To uncover genetic networks active in the developing cerebral cortex, we combined three-dimensional reconstruction of human fetal brains at midgestation and whole genome expression profiling. This novel approach enabled transcriptional characterization of neurons from accurately defined cortical regions containing presumptive Broca and Wernicke language areas, as well as surrounding associative areas. We identified hundreds of genes displaying differential expression between the two regions, but no significant difference in gene expression between left and right hemispheres. Validation by qRTPCR and in situ hybridization confirmed the robustness of our approach and revealed novel patterns of area- and layer-specific expression throughout the developing cortex. Genes differentially expressed between cortical areas were significantly associated with fast-evolving non-coding sequences harboring human-specific substitutions that could lead to divergence in their repertoires of transcription factor binding sites. Strikingly, while some of these sequences were accelerated in the human lineage only, many others were accelerated in chimpanzee and/or mouse lineages, indicating that genes important for cortical development may be particularly prone to changes in transcriptional regulation across mammals. Genes differentially expressed between cortical regions were also enriched for transcriptional targets of FoxP2, a key gene for the acquisition of language abilities in humans. Our findings point to a subset of genes with a unique combination of cortical areal expression and evolutionary patterns, suggesting that they play important roles in the transcriptional network underlying human-specific neural traits.
PLoS ONE 01/2011; 6(3):e17753. · 4.09 Impact Factor