Newly launched nerve cells in a growing embryo must chart their course to distant destinations, and many of the means they use to navigate have yet to surface. In a study published in the current issue of the journal Neuron, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have recovered a key signal that guides motor neurons – the nascent cells that extend from the spinal cord and must find their way down the length of limbs such as arms, wings and legs.
The Salk study, led by Samuel Pfaff, Ph.D, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory, identifies a mutation they christened Magellan, after the Portuguese mariner whose ship Victoria was first to circumnavigate the globe. The Magellan mutation occurs in a gene that normally pilots motor neurons on the correct course employing a newly discovered mechanism, their results demonstrate.
In the mutants, growing neurons can be seen leaving the spinal cord normally but then appear to lose direction. The elongating cells develop “kinks” and sometimes fold back on themselves or become entwined in a spiral, forming coils outside the spinal cord. “They appear to become lost in a traffic roundabout,” described Pfaff, who observed the growing neurons with fluorescent technology.
Understanding how motor neurons reach the appropriate targets is necessary for the implementation of novel therapies, including embryonic stem cell replacement for the treatment of presently incurable disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in which motor neurons undergo irreversible decay.
“Embryonic studies provide useful insights on how to replicate the system in an adult,” said Pfaff. And, as he also pointed out, the mechanisms used by motor neurons are likely to be similar to those used in other parts of the central nervous system, such as the brain. The Magellan mutation discovered by Pfaff’s group was found in mice, but the affected gene, called Phr1, has also been identified in other model systems, including fruit flies and the worm species C. elegans.
A growing nerve bears at its bow a structure called the growth cone, a region rich in the receptor molecules whose job is to receive cues from the environment, much as ancient mariners who observed the stars and set their course accordingly. During development, the growth cone continuously pushes forward, while the lengthening neuron behind it matures into the part of the cell called the axon. Once the growing cell “lands” at its target in a muscle cell, it is the axon that will relay the messages that allow an animal to control and move its limbs at will.
In Magellan mutants, Pfaff’s team discovered that the growth cone becomes disordered. Rather than forming a distinct “cap” on the developing neuron, the cone is dispersed in pieces along both the forward end and the axon extending behind it.
“The defect is found in the structure of the neuron itself,” said Pfaff, noting that the fundamental pieces, such as the receptors capable of reading cues, all seem to be present. Without the correct orientation of receptors, however, signals cannot be read accurately, resulting in growth going off course.
“A precise gradient normally exists across the cone,” said Pfaff, “which is disrupted in the Magellan mutants.” As a result, cells lose their polarity. They literally do not know the front end from the back end, according to Pfaff. This sense of polarity is a universal feature common to all growing neurons. Therefore, “Phr1 is likely to play a role in most growing neurons to ensure their structure is retained at the same time they are growing larger,” he said.
Pfaff and his group identified Magellan using a novel system they had developed, in which individual motor neurons and axons can be visualized fluorescently. They were able to screen more than a quarter of a million mutations, and the mutations of interest were rapidly mapped to known genes as a result of the availability of the sequenced mouse genome – a byproduct of the effort to sequence entire genomes such as that in the human.
The Magellan mutation is located in a gene known as Phr1, which is also active in other parts of the nervous system, indicating that it most likely functions to steer other types of neurons, such as those that enervate sensory organs or connect different regions of the brain. Studies of Magellan may therefore shed light on how a variety of neurological disorders might be treated with cell replacement strategies.
Gina Kirchweger | EurekAlert!
Discovery of genes involved in the biosynthesis of antidepressant
09.12.2019 | Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research
Scientists have spotted new compounds with herbicidal potential from sea fungus
09.12.2019 | Far Eastern Federal University
Using a clever technique that causes unruly crystals of iron selenide to snap into alignment, Rice University physicists have drawn a detailed map that reveals...
University of Texas and MIT researchers create virtual UAVs that can predict vehicle health, enable autonomous decision-making
In the not too distant future, we can expect to see our skies filled with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) delivering packages, maybe even people, from location...
With ultracold chemistry, researchers get a first look at exactly what happens during a chemical reaction
The coldest chemical reaction in the known universe took place in what appears to be a chaotic mess of lasers. The appearance deceives: Deep within that...
Abnormal scarring is a serious threat resulting in non-healing chronic wounds or fibrosis. Scars form when fibroblasts, a type of cell of connective tissue, reach wounded skin and deposit plugs of extracellular matrix. Until today, the question about the exact anatomical origin of these fibroblasts has not been answered. In order to find potential ways of influencing the scarring process, the team of Dr. Yuval Rinkevich, Group Leader for Regenerative Biology at the Institute of Lung Biology and Disease at Helmholtz Zentrum München, aimed to finally find an answer. As it was already known that all scars derive from a fibroblast lineage expressing the Engrailed-1 gene - a lineage not only present in skin, but also in fascia - the researchers intentionally tried to understand whether or not fascia might be the origin of fibroblasts.
Fibroblasts kit - ready to heal wounds
Research from a leading international expert on the health of the Great Lakes suggests that the growing intensity and scale of pollution from plastics poses serious risks to human health and will continue to have profound consequences on the ecosystem.
In an article published this month in the Journal of Waste Resources and Recycling, Gail Krantzberg, a professor in the Booth School of Engineering Practice...
03.12.2019 | Event News
15.11.2019 | Event News
15.11.2019 | Event News
09.12.2019 | Earth Sciences
09.12.2019 | Information Technology
09.12.2019 | Life Sciences