Osmotic Avoidance in Caenorhabditis elegans : Synaptic Function of Two Genes, Orthologues of Human NRXN1 and NLGN1 , as Candidates for Autism

Departamento de Genética, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Córdoba.
Journal of Visualized Experiments (Impact Factor: 1.33). 12/2009; 34(34). DOI: 10.3791/1616
Source: PubMed


Neurexins and neuroligins are cell adhesion molecules present in excitatory and inhibitory synapses, and they are required for correct neuron network function. These proteins are found at the presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes. Studies in mice indicate that neurexins and neurologins have an essential role in synaptic transmission. Recent reports have shown that altered neuronal connections during the development of the human nervous system could constitute the basis of the etiology of numerous cases of autism spectrum disorders. Caenorhabditis elegans could be used as an experimental tool to facilitate the study of the functioning of synaptic components, because of its simplicity for laboratory experimentation, and given that its nervous system and synaptic wiring has been fully characterized. In C. elegans nrx-1 and nlg-1 genes are orthologous to human NRXN1 and NLGN1 genes which encode alpha-neurexin-1 and neuroligin-1 proteins, respectively. In humans and nematodes, the organization of neurexins and neuroligins is similar in respect to functional domains. The head of the nematode contains the amphid, a sensory organ of the nematode, which mediates responses to different stimuli, including osmotic strength. The amphid is made of 12 sensory bipolar neurons with ciliated dendrites and one presynaptic terminal axon. Two of these neurons, named ASHR and ASHL are particularly important in osmotic sensory function, detecting water-soluble repellents with high osmotic strength. The dendrites of these two neurons lengthen to the tip of the mouth and the axons extend to the nerve ring, where they make synaptic connections with other neurons determining the behavioral response. To evaluate the implications of neurexin and neuroligin in high osmotic strength avoidance, we show the different response of C. elegans mutants defective in nrx-1 and nlg-1 genes, using a method based on a 4M fructose ring. The behavioral phenotypes were confirmed using specific RNAi clones. In C. elegans, the dsRNA required to trigger RNAi can be administered by feeding. The delivery of dsRNA through food induces the RNAi interference of the gene of interest thus allowing the identification of genetic components and network pathways.

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    ABSTRACT: The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has a very well-defined and genetically tractable nervous system which offers an effective model to explore basic mechanistic pathways that might be underpin complex human neurological diseases. Here, the role C. elegans is playing in understanding two neurodegenerative conditions, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease (AD), and a complex neurological condition, autism, is used as an exemplar of the utility of this model system. C. elegans is an imperfect model of Parkinson's disease because it lacks orthologues of the human disease-related genes PARK1 and LRRK2 which are linked to the autosomal dominant form of this disease. Despite this fact, the nematode is a good model because it allows transgenic expression of these human genes and the study of the impact on dopaminergic neurons in several genetic backgrounds and environmental conditions. For AD, C. elegans has orthologues of the amyloid precursor protein and both human presenilins, PS1 and PS2. In addition, many of the neurotoxic properties linked with Aβ amyloid and tau peptides can be studied in the nematode. Autism spectrum disorder is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impairments in human social interaction, difficulties in communication, and restrictive and repetitive behaviours. Establishing C. elegans as a model for this complex behavioural disorder is difficult; however, abnormalities in neuronal synaptic communication are implicated in the aetiology of the disorder. Numerous studies have associated autism with mutations in several genes involved in excitatory and inhibitory synapses in the mammalian brain, including neuroligin, neurexin and shank, for which there are C. elegans orthologues. Thus, several molecular pathways and behavioural phenotypes in C. elegans have been related to autism. In general, the nematode offers a series of advantages that combined with knowledge from other animal models and human research, provides a powerful complementary experimental approach for understanding the molecular mechanisms and underlying aetiology of complex neurological diseases.
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    ABSTRACT: Neuroligins are cell adhesion proteins that interact with neurexins at the synapse. This interaction may contribute to differentiation, plasticity and specificity of synapses. In humans, single mutations in neuroligin encoding genes lead to autism spectrum disorder and/or mental retardation. Caenorhabditis elegans mutants deficient in nlg-1, an orthologue of human neuroligin genes, have defects in different behaviors. Here we show that the expression of human NLGN1 or rat Nlgn1 cDNAs in C. elegans nlg-1 mutants rescues the fructose osmotic strength avoidance and gentle touch response phenotypes. Two specific point mutations in NLGN3 and NLGN4 genes, involved in autistic spectrum disorder, were further characterized in this experimental system. The R451C allele described in NLGN3, was analyzed with both human NLGN1 (R453C) and worm NLG-1 (R437C) proteins, and both were not functional in rescuing the osmotic avoidance behavior and the gentle touch response phenotype. The D396X allele described in NLGN4, which produces a truncated protein, was studied with human NLGN1 (D432X) and they did not rescue any of the behavioral phenotypes analyzed. In addition, RNAi feeding experiments measuring gentle touch response in wild type strain and worms expressing SID-1 in neurons (which increases the response to dsRNA), both fed with bacteria expressing dsRNA for nlg-1, provided evidence for a postsynaptic in vivo function of neuroligins both in muscle cells and neurons, equivalent to that proposed in mammals. This finding was further confirmed generating transgenic nlg-1 deficient mutants expressing NLG-1 under pan-neuronal (nrx-1) or pan-muscular (myo-3) specific promoters. All these results suggest that the nematode could be used as an in vivo model for studying particular synaptic mechanisms with proteins orthologues of humans involved in pervasive developmental disorders.
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