To understand how neurons assemble to form functional circuits, it is necessary to obtain a detailed knowledge of their diversity and to define the developmental specification programs that give rise to this diversity. Invertebrates and vertebrates appear to share common developmental principles of neuronal specification in which cascades of transcription factors temporally pattern progenitors, while spatial cues modify the outcomes of this temporal patterning. Here, we highlight these conserved mechanisms and describe how they are used in distinct neural structures. We present the questions that remain for a better understanding of neuronal specification. Single-cell RNA profiling approaches will potentially shed light on these questions, allowing not only the characterization of neuronal diversity in adult brains, but also the investigation of the developmental trajectories leading to the generation and maintenance of this diversity.
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