The formation of photoreceptor cells (PRCs) in Drosophila serves as a paradigm for understanding neuronal determination and differentiation. During larval stages, a precise series of sequential inductive processes leads to the recruitment of eight distinct PRCs (R1-R8). But, final photoreceptor differentiation, including rhabdomere morphogenesis and opsin expression, is completed four days later, during pupal development. It is thought that photoreceptor cell fate is irreversibly established during larval development, when each photoreceptor expresses a particular set of transcriptional regulators and sends its projection to different layers of the optic lobes. Here, we show that the spalt (sal) gene complex encodes two transcription factors that are required late in pupation for photoreceptor differentiation. In the absence of the sal complex, rhabdomere morphology and expression of opsin genes in the inner PRCs R7 and R8 are changed to become identical to those of outer R1-R6 PRCs. However, these cells maintain their normal projections to the medulla part of the optic lobe, and not to the lamina where outer PRCs project. These data indicate that photoreceptor differentiation occurs as a two-step process. First, during larval development, the photoreceptor neurons become committed and send their axonal projections to their targets in the brain. Second, terminal differentiation is executed during pupal development and the photoreceptors adopt their final cellular properties.
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