(2020) Current biology : CB. 30, 21, p. 4128-4141.e5 Abstract
Sexually dimorphic circuits underlie behavioral differences between the sexes, yet the molecular mechanisms involved in their formation are poorly understood. We show here that sexually dimorphic connectivity patterns arise in C. elegans through local ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation in selected synapses of one sex but not the other. Specifically, synaptic degradation occurs via binding of the evolutionary conserved E3 ligase SEL-10/FBW7 to a phosphodegron binding site of the netrin receptor UNC-40/DCC (Deleted in Colorectal Cancer), resulting in degradation of UNC-40. In animals carrying an undegradable unc-40 gain-of-function allele, synapses were retained in both sexes, compromising the activity of the circuit without affecting neurite guidance. Thus, by decoupling the synaptic and guidance functions of the netrin pathway, we reveal a critical role for dimorphic protein degradation in controlling neuronal connectivity and activity. Additionally, the interaction between SEL-10 and UNC-40 is necessary not only for sex-specific synapse pruning, but also for other synaptic functions. These findings provide insight into the mechanisms that generate sex-specific differences in neuronal connectivity, activity, and function.
Ubiquitin-dependent regulation of a conserved DMRT protein controls sexually dimorphic synaptic connectivity and behavior(2020) eLife. 9, 59614. Abstract[All authors]
Sex-specific synaptic connectivity is beginning to emerge as a remarkable, but little explored feature of animal brains. We describe here a novel mechanism that promotes sexually dimorphic neuronal function and synaptic connectivity in the nervous system of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. We demonstrate that a phylogenetically conserved, but previously uncharacterized Doublesex/Mab-3 related transcription factor (DMRT), dmd-4, is expressed in two classes of sex-shared phasmid neurons specifically in hermaphrodites but not in males. We find dmd-4 to promote hermaphrodite-specific synaptic connectivity and neuronal function of phasmid sensory neurons. Sex-specificity of DMD-4 function is conferred by a novel mode of posttranslational regulation that involves sex-specific protein stabilization through ubiquitin binding to a phylogenetically conserved but previously unstudied protein domain, the DMA domain. A human DMRT homolog of DMD-4 is controlled in a similar manner, indicating that our findings may have implications for the control of sexual differentiation in other animals as well.
(2020) Current Topics in Developmental Biology. Abstract
Sex-specific behaviors are common in nature and are crucial for reproductive fitness and species survival. A key question in the field of sex/gender neurobiology is whether and to what degree the sex-shared nervous system differs between the sexes in the anatomy, connectivity and molecular identity of its components. An equally intriguing issue is how does the same sex-shared neuronal template diverge to mediate distinct behavioral outputs in females and males. This chapter aims to present the most up-to-date understanding of how this task is achieved in C. elegans. The vast majority of neurons in C. elegans are shared among the two sexes in terms of their lineage history, anatomical position and neuronal identity. Yet a substantial amount of evidence points to the hermaphrodite-male counterparts of some neurons expressing different genes and forming different synaptic connections. This, in turn, enables the same cells and circuits to transmit discrete signals in the two sexes and ultimately execute different functions. We review the various sex-shared behavioral paradigms that have been shown to be sexually dimorphic in recent years, discuss the mechanisms that underlie these examples, refer to the developmental regulation of neuronal dimorphism and suggest evolutionary concepts that emerge from the data.
(2019) Annual Review of Neuroscience. 42, p. 365-383 Abstract
The structural and functional properties of neurons have intrigued scientists since the pioneering work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Since then, emerging cutting- edge technologies, including light and electron microscopy, electrophysiology, biochemistry, optogenetics, and molecular biology, have dramatically increased our understanding of dendritic properties. This advancement was also facilitated by the establishment of different animal model organisms, from flies to mammals. Here we describe the emerging model system of a Caenorhabditis elegans polymodal neuron named PVD, whose dendritic tree follows a stereotypical structure characterized by repeating candelabra- like structural units. In the past decade, progress has been made in understanding PVD's functions, morphogenesis, regeneration, and aging, yet many questions still remain.
(2017) Development. 144, p. 2364-2374 Abstract
The aging brain undergoes structural changes that affect brain homeostasis, neuronal function and consequently cognition. The complex architecture of dendritic arbors poses a challenge to understanding age-dependent morphological alterations, behavioral plasticity and remodeling following brain injury. Here, we use the PVD polymodal neurons of C. elegans as a model to study how aging affects neuronal plasticity. Using confocal live imaging of C. elegans PVD neurons, we demonstrate age-related progressive morphological alterations of intricate dendritic arbors. We show that mutations in daf-2, which encodes an insulin-like growth factor receptor ortholog, fail to inhibit the progressive morphological aging of dendrites and do not prevent the minor decline in response to harsh touch during aging. We uncovered that PVD aging is characterized by a major decline in the regenerative potential of dendrites following experimental laser dendrotomy. Furthermore, the remodeling of transected dendritic trees by AFF-1-mediated self-fusion can be restored in old animals by daf-2 mutations, and can be differentially re-established by ectopic expression of the fusion protein AFF-1. Thus, ectopic expression of the fusogen AFF-1 in the PVD and mutations in daf-2 differentially rejuvenate some aspects of dendritic regeneration following injury.
Extrinsic Repair of Injured Dendrites as a Paradigm for Regeneration by Fusion in Caenorhabditis elegans(2017) Genetics. 206, 1, p. 215-230 Abstract
Injury triggers regeneration of axons and dendrites. Research has identified factors required for axonal regeneration outside the CNS, but little is known about regeneration triggered by dendrotomy. Here, we study neuronal plasticity triggered by dendrotomy and determine the fate of complex PVD arbors following laser surgery of dendrites. We find that severed primary dendrites grow toward each other and reconnect via branch fusion. Simultaneously, terminal branches lose self-avoidance and grow toward each other, meeting and fusing at the tips via an AFF-1-mediated process. Ectopic branch growth is identified as a step in the regeneration process required for bypassing the lesion site. Failure of reconnection to the severed dendrites results in degeneration of the distal end of the neuron. We discover pruning of excess branches via EFF-1 that acts to recover the original wild-type arborization pattern in a late stage of the process. In contrast, AFF-1 activity during dendritic auto-fusion is derived from the lateral seam cells and not autonomously from the PVD neuron. We propose a model in which AFF-1-vesicles derived from the epidermal seam cells fuse neuronal dendrites. Thus, EFF-1 and AFF-1 fusion proteins emerge as new players in neuronal arborization and maintenance of arbor connectivity following injury in Caenorhabditis elegans. Our results demonstrate that there is a genetically determined multi-step pathway to repair broken dendrites in which EFF-1 and AFF-1 act on different steps of the pathway. EFF-1 is essential for dendritic pruning after injury and extrinsic AFF-1 mediates dendrite fusion to bypass injuries.
(2017) Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine. 3 ed. p. 149-159 Abstract
Throughout evolution, sensory information is processed by the opposing sexes into distinct sexually dimorphic behaviors. At the level of the nervous system, the cause of these dimorphic behaviors remains largely unknown. Dimorphism may result from differential structural or signaling properties of the neuronal network. The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is an ideal model to explore the genetic control of neuronal sex differences and the sexual regulation of the nervous system and behavior. The male and hermaphroditic nervous systems of C. elegans contain the same set of 294 neurons, but each sex also has its own set of sex-specific neurons. Comparisons of the C. elegans connectome between both sexes have revealed a striking dimension of sexual identity: specific neurons have sexually dimorphic synaptic connectivity. Here we review studies that try to elucidate how shared neuronal circuits are modulated to process sensory information in a sex-specific manner.
Sexually Dimorphic Differentiation of a C. elegans Hub Neuron Is Cell Autonomously Controlled by a Conserved Transcription Factor(2017) Current Biology. 27, 2, p. 199-209 Abstract
Functional and anatomical sexual dimorphisms in the brain are either the result of cells that are generated only in one sex or a manifestation of sex-specific differentiation of neurons present in both sexes. The PHC neuron pair of the nematode C. elegans differentiates in a strikingly sex-specific manner. In hermaphrodites the PHC neurons display a canonical pattern of synaptic connectivity similar to that of other sensory neurons, but in males PHC differentiates into a densely connected hub sensory neuron/interneuron, integrating a large number of male-specific synaptic inputs and conveying them to both male-specific and sex-shared circuitry. We show that the differentiation into such a hub neuron involves the sex-specific scaling of several components of the synaptic vesicle machinery, including the vesicular glutamate transporter eat-4/VGLUT, induction of neuropeptide expression, changes in axonal projection morphology, and a switch in neuronal function. We demonstrate that these molecular and anatomical remodeling events are controlled cell autonomously by the phylogenetically conserved Doublesex homolog dmd-3, which is both required and sufficient for sex-specific PHC differentiation. Cellular specificity of dmd-3 action is ensured by its collaboration with non-sex-specific terminal selector-type transcription factors, whereas the sex specificity of dmd-3 action is ensured by the hermaphrodite-specific transcriptional master regulator of hermaphroditic cell identity tra-1, which represses the transcription of dmd-3 in hermaphrodite PHC. Taken together, our studies provide mechanistic insights into how neurons are specified in a sexually dimorphic manner.
(2016) Nature. 533, 7602, p. 206-211 Abstract
Whether and how neurons that are present in both sexes of the same species can differentiate in a sexually dimorphic manner is not well understood. A comparison of the connectomes of the Caenorhabditis elegans hermaphrodite and male nervous systems reveals the existence of sexually dimorphic synaptic connections between neurons present in both sexes. Here we demonstrate sex-specific functions of these sex-shared neurons and show that many neurons initially form synapses in a hybrid manner in both the male and hermaphrodite pattern before sexual maturation. Sex-specific synapse pruning then results in the sex-specific maintenance of subsets of these connections. Reversal of the sexual identity of either the pre- or postsynaptic neuron alone transforms the patterns of synaptic connectivity to that of the opposite sex. A dimorphically expressed and phylogenetically conserved transcription factor is both necessary and sufficient to determine sex-specific connectivity patterns. Our studies reveal new insights into sex-specific circuit development.
(2014) BioMedical Engineering Online. 13, 74. Abstract
Background: Maximum Intensity Projections (MIP) of neuronal dendritic trees obtained from confocal microscopy are frequently used to study the relationship between tree morphology and mechanosensory function in the model organism C. elegans. Extracting dendritic trees from noisy images remains however a strenuous process that has traditionally relied on manual approaches. Here, we focus on automated and reliable 2D segmentations of dendritic trees following a statistical learning framework.Methods: Our dendritic tree extraction (DTE) method uses small amounts of labelled training data on MIPs to learn noise models of texture-based features from the responses of tree structures and image background. Our strategy lies in evaluating statistical models of noise that account for both the variability generated from the imaging process and from the aggregation of information in the MIP images. These noisy models are then used within a probabilistic, or Bayesian framework to provide a coarse 2D dendritic tree segmentation. Finally, some post-processing is applied to refine the segmentations and provide skeletonized trees using a morphological thinning process.Results: Following a Leave-One-Out Cross Validation (LOOCV) method for an MIP databse with available “ground truth” images, we demonstrate that our approach provides significant improvements in tree-structure segmentations over traditional intensity-based methods. Improvements for MIPs under various imaging conditions are both qualitative and quantitative, as measured from Receiver Operator Characteristic (ROC) curves and the yield and error rates in the final segmentations. In a final step, we demonstrate our DTE approach on previously unseen MIP samples including the extraction of skeletonized structures, and compare our method to a state-of-the art dendritic tree tracing software.Conclusions: Overall, our DTE method allows for robust dendritic tree segmentations in noisy MIPs, outperforming traditional intensity-based methods. Such approach provides a useable segmentation framework, ultimately delivering a speed-up for dendritic tree identification on the user end and a reliable first step towards further morphological characterizations of tree arborization.
(2012) Current Biology. 22, 19, p. 1774-1782 Abstract
Background: The molecular mechanisms that determine axonal growth potential are poorly understood. Intrinsic growth potential decreases with age, and thus one strategy to identify molecular pathways controlling intrinsic growth potential is by studying developing young neurons. The programmed and stereotypic remodeling of Drosophila mushroom body (MB) neurons during metamorphosis offers a unique opportunity to uncover such mechanisms. Despite emerging insights into MB gamma-neuron axon pruning, nothing is known about the ensuing axon re-extension. Results: Using mosaic loss of function, we found that the nuclear receptor UNF (Nr2e3) is cell autonomously required for the re-extension of MB gamma-axons following pruning, but not for the initial growth or guidance of any MB neuron type. We found that UNF promotes this process of developmental axon regrowth via the TOR pathway as well as a late axon guidance program via an unknown mechanism. We have thus uncovered a novel developmental program of axon regrowth that is cell autonomously regulated by the UNF nuclear receptor and the TOR pathway. Conclusions: Our results suggest that UNF activates neuronal re-extension during development. Taken together, we show that axon growth during developmental remodeling is mechanistically distinct from initial axon outgrowth. Due to the involvement of the TOR pathway in axon regeneration following injury, our results also suggests that developmental regrowth shares common molecular mechanisms with regeneration following injury.
(2010) Science. 328, 5983, p. 1285-1288 Abstract
The mechanisms controlling the formation and maintenance of neuronal trees are poorly understood. We examined the dynamic development of two arborized mechanoreceptor neurons (PVDs) required for reception of strong mechanical stimuli in Caenorhabditis elegans. The PVDs elaborated dendritic trees comprising structural units we call “menorahs.” We studied how the number, structure, and function of menorahs were maintained. EFF-1, an essential protein mediating cell fusion, acted autonomously in the PVDs to trim developing menorahs. eff-1 mutants displayed hyperbranched, disorganized menorahs. Overexpression of EFF-1 in the PVD reduced branching. Neuronal pruning appeared to involve EFF-1–dependent branch retraction and neurite-neurite autofusion. Thus, EFF-1 activities may act as a quality control mechanism during the sculpting of dendritic trees.
(2007) Trends in Cell Biology. 17, 11, p. 537-546 Abstract
Most readers of this review originated from a sperm–egg fusion event. Cell fusion is a process that is crucial at many intersections later during development. However, we do not know which molecules (fusogens) fuse the membranes of gametes to form zygotes, myoblasts to form myotubes in muscles, macrophages to form osteoclasts in bones, or cytotrophoblasts to form syncytiotrophoblasts in placentas. There are five gold standards that can be applied for the identification of genuine fusogens. Based on these criteria, a numerical score can be used to assess the likelihood of protein fusogenicity. We compare distinct families of candidate developmental, viral and intracellular fusogens and analyze current models of membrane fusion.
The C-elegans developmental fusogen EFF-1 mediates homotypic fusion in heterologous cells and in vivo(2006) Developmental Cell. 11, 4, p. 471-481 Abstract
During cell-cell fusion, two cells' plasma membranes merge, allowing the cytoplasms to mix and form a syncytium. Little is known about the mechanisms of cell fusion. Here, we asked whether eff-1, shown previously to be essential for fusion in Caenorhabditis elegans, acts directly in the fusion machinery. We show that expression of EFF-1 transmembrane protein drives fusion of heterologous cells into multinucleate syncytia. We obtained evidence that EFF-1-mediated fusion involves a hemifusion intermediate characterized by membrane mixing without cytoplasm mixing. Furthermore, syncytiogenesis requires EFF-1 in both fusing cells. To test whether this mechanism also applies in vivo, we conducted genetic mosaic analysis of C. elegans and found that homotypic epidermal fusion requires EFF-1 in both cells. Thus, although EFF-1-mediated fusion shares characteristics with viral and intracellular fusion, including an apparent hemifusion step, it differs from these reactions in the homotypic organization of the fusion machinery.
(2004) Current Biology. 14, 17, p. 1587-1591 Abstract
Despite the identification of essential processes in which cell fusion plays spectacular roles such as in fertilization and development of muscle, bone, and placenta 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, there are no identified proteins that directly mediate developmental cell fusion reactions. C. elegans has recently become among the best-characterized models to use for studying developmental cell fusion 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. The eff-1 (epithelial fusion failure) gene encodes novel type I membrane proteins required for epithelial cell fusion. Analysis of eff-1 mutants showed that cell fusion normally restricts routes for cell migration and establishes body and organ shape and size [ 5, 8, 9, 11]. Here, we explored cell fusion by using time-lapse confocal and electron microscopy of different organs. We found that ectopic expression of eff-1 is sufficient to fuse epithelial cells that do not normally fuse. This ectopic fusion results in cytoplasmic content mixing and disappearance of apical junctions, starting less than 50 min after the start of eff-1 transcription. We found that eff-1 is necessary to initiate and expand multiple microfusion events between pharyngeal muscle cells. Surprisingly, eff-1 is not required to fuse the gonadal anchor cell to uterine cells. Thus, eff-1 is sufficient and essential for most but not all cell fusion events during C. elegans development.