Neural cell fate programs must generate an enormous number of neurons with distinct adult functions. The decision to choose one neuronal subtype from two alternatives - a binary fate decision - is one way to diversify neuronal subtypes during nervous system development. Recent progress has been made in describing the genetic programs that define late-stage neuronal identity. Here, we review mechanisms that control how such fate decisions generate two different postmitotic, terminally differentiated neuronal subtypes. We survey examples from Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila that demonstrate different modes of binary neuronal fate specification that depend on cell division, lineage, stochastic gene expression, or extracellular signals. Comparison of these strategies reveals that, although organisms use diverse approaches to generate neural diversity, some common themes do exist.
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