Berta Alsina, Fernando Giraldez and Cristina Pujades*
Departament de Ciències Experimentals i de la Salut, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Parc de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona (PRBB), Spain
The inner ear is a complex structure responsible for the senses of audition and balance in vertebrates. The ear is organised into different sense organs that are specialised to detect specific stimuli such as sound and linear or angular accelerations. The elementary sensory unit of the ear consists of hair cells, supporting cells, neurons and Schwann cells. Hair cells are the mechano-electrical transducing elements, and otic neurons convey information coded in electrical impulses to the brain. With the exception of the Schwann cells, all cellular elements of the inner ear derive from the otic placode. This is an ectodermal thickening that is specified in the head ectoderm adjacent to the caudal hindbrain. The complex organisation of the ear requires precise coupling of regional specification and cell fate decisions during development, i.e. specificity in defining particular spatial domains containing particular cell types. Those decisions are taken early in development and are the subject of this article. We review here recent work on: i) early patterning of the otic placode, ii) the role of neural tube signals in the patterning of the otic vesicle, and iii) the genes underlying cell fate determination of neurons and sensory hair cells.