The polarization of post-mitotic neurons is poorly understood. Preexisting spatially asymmetric cues, distributed within the neuron or as extracellular gradients, could be required for neurons to polarize. Alternatively, neurons might have the intrinsic ability to polarize without any preestablished asymmetric cues. In Caenorhabditis elegans, the UNC-40 (DCC) receptor mediates responses to the extracellular UNC-6 (netrin) guidance cue. For the HSN neuron, an UNC-6 ventral-dorsal gradient asymmetrically localizes UNC-40 to the ventral HSN surface. There an axon forms, which is ventrally directed by UNC-6. In the absence of UNC-6, UNC-40 is equally distributed and the HSN axon travels anteriorly in response to other cues. However, we find that a single amino acid change in the UNC-40 ectodomain causes randomly oriented asymmetric UNC-40 localization and a wandering axon phenotype. With UNC-6, there is normal UNC-40 localization and axon migration. A single UNC-6 amino acid substitution enhances the mutant phenotypes, whereas UNC-6 second-site amino acid substitutions suppress the phenotypes. We propose that UNC-40 mediates multiple signals to polarize and orient asymmetry. One signal triggers the intrinsic ability ofHSNto polarize and causes randomly oriented asymmetry. Concurrently, another signal biases the orientation of the asymmetry relative to the UNC-6 gradient. The UNC-40 ectodomain mutation activates the polarization signal, whereas different forms of the UNC-6 ligand produce UNC-40 conformational changes that allow or prohibit the orientation signal.
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