Bathed in nutrients, but in the absence of any particular cue, axons will extend from cortex nerve cells in all directions (top image). Toss in a growth stimulator like semaphorin-7a, and axon growth is heavier nearest the cue (bottom image). Credit: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Nature.
For decades, scientists have hunted for signals that guide nerve cells’ tentacle-like axons, hoping to understand how these cell tips reach out to distant targets. It’s knowledge that might one day help researchers learn how to rebuild nerves lost to spinal cord injuries or diseases like Huntington’s.
Now, a Johns Hopkins team studying a family of proteins best known for repelling axons and inhibiting their growth reports finding one member that unexpectedly promotes axon growth instead. In their experiments, rat nerves in the lab grew more and longer axons on the side nearest a source of this protein, called semaphorin-7a. Moreover, in mice without semaphorin-7a, axons of some odor-sensing nerve cells never reached their targets, the scientists report in the July 24 issue of Nature.
"I’ve been studying semaphorins for about a decade and didn’t expect to find any that stimulated axon growth, certainly not to the extent we saw in the lab and in mice," says Alex Kolodkin, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience in The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "Now we need to figure out how semaphorins balance their repulsive and attractive effects."
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