Though symptoms such as loss of vision, decline in cognition and memory are evident during aging, the underlying processes that affect neuronal function during aging are not well understood. Unlike changes in other tissues and organs, age-related changes in the nervous system affect the overall physical, mental as well as social state of human beings. To start elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying normal age-dependent brain decline, we have characterized structural neuronal changes occurring during Caenorhabditis elegans aging. Our analysis reveals distinct neuronal alterations that arise with age and that the types of changes and their age of onset are neuronal-type specific, highlighting the differential susceptibility of neurons to the stresses of life. We also find that these age-dependent neuronal changes are largely uncoupled from lifespan. As a first step towards understanding the neuropathological conditions manifested during senescence, we have characterized the role of the neuronal maintenance gene sax-7/L1CAM in normal C. elegans aging. Our comparison of age-related structural changes in the wild-type nervous system with that of sax-7 mutants, indicates that loss of function of sax-7 results in accelerated neuronal deterioration that mimics alterations occurring during normal aging. Conversely, overexpressing wild-type copies of SAX-7 delays some of the neuronal changes that accompany normal aging, indicating that SAX-7 plays a neuroprotective role. Additionally we find that x mechanical stress from body movements impacts the neuronal changes during adulthood. Taken together, our results give an entry point into the mechanisms of age-related neuroanatomical changes and neuronal protection.
Roles of Protein Arginine Methyltransferase 7 and Jumonji Domain-Containing Protein 6 in Adipocyte Differentiation: A Dissertation
Regulation of gene expression comprises a wide range of mechanisms that control the abundance of gene products in response to environmental and developmental changes. These biological processes can be modulated by posttranslational modifications including arginine methylation. Among the enzymes that catalyze the methylation, protein arginine methyltransferase 7 (PRMT7) is known to modify histones to repress gene expression. Jumonji domain-containing protein 6 (JMJD6) is a putative arginine demethylase that potentially antagonize PRMT7. However, the biological significance of these enzymes is not well understood. This thesis summarizes the investigation of both PRMT7 and JMJD6 in cell culture models for adipocyte differentiation. The results suggest that PRMT7 is not required for the differentiation, whereas JMJD6 is necessary for the differentiation by promoting the expression of the lineage determining transcription factors peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ (PPARγ) and CCAAT/enhancerbinding proteins (C/EBPs). The underlying mechanisms by which JMJD6 regulate differentiation involve transcriptional and post-transcriptional control of gene expression. Unexpectedly, the adipogenic function of JMJD6 is independent of its enzymatic activity. Collectively, the present research reveals a novel role of JMJD6 in gene regulation during the differentiation of adipocytes.
Insights into Melanocyte Regeneration and Melanoma Initiation Using the Zebrafish Model System: A Dissertation
During regeneration, cells must coordinate proliferation and differentiation to rebuild tissues that are lost. Understanding how source cells execute the regeneration process has been a longstanding goal in regenerative biology with implications in wound healing and cell replacement therapies. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells in the skin of vertebrates that can be lost during hair graying, injury and disease-related depigmentation. Melanoma is an aggressive skin cancer that develops from melanocytes, and it is hypothesized that melanoma cells have properties that are similar to melanocyte stem cells.
To gain insight into melanocyte regeneration we set out to identify the source of regeneration melanocytes in adult zebrafish and the path through which progenitor cells reconstitute the pigment pattern. Using targeted cell ablation and single cell lineage-tracing analyses we identified that a majority of regeneration melanocytes arise through direct differentiation of mitfa-expressing progenitor cells. Concurrently, other mitfa-expressing cells divide symmetrically to generate additional mitfa-positive progenitors, thus maintaining regeneration capability. Using reporter assays and drug studies, we found that Wnt signaling gets turned on in progenitor cells during regeneration and Wnt inhibition after melanocyte ablation blocks regeneration. Based on our finding that Wnt signaling is active in differentiated melanocytes but not in the progenitor cells, we explored the role of Wnt signaling in tumor initiation. We found that approximately half of the melanomas are Wnt silent, and overexpression of dkk1b, a negative regulator of canonical Wnt signaling, accelerates melanoma onset.
This work defines an unappreciated contribution by direct differentiation in melanocyte regeneration and suggests a broader role for this process in the maintenance of epithelial sheets. This study also identifies a shared pathway between melanocyte progenitors and melanoma cells, which could be applicable to other cancers.
Eukaryotic DNA is incorporated into the nucleoprotein structure of chromatin. This structure is essential for the proper storage, maintenance, regulation, and function of the genomes’ constituent genes and genomic sequences. Importantly, cells generate discrete types of chromatin that impart distinct properties on genomic loci; euchromatin is an open and active compartment of the genome, and heterochromatin is a restricted and inactive compartment. Heterochromatin serves many purposes in vivo, from heritably silencing key gene loci during embryonic development, to preventing aberrant DNA repeat recombination. Despite this generally repressive role, the DNA contained within heterochromatin must still be repaired and replicated, creating a need for regulated dynamic access into silent heterochromatin. In this work, we discover and characterize activities that the ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling enzyme SWI/SNF uses to disrupt repressive heterochromatin structure.
First, we find two specific physical interactions between the SWI/SNF core subunit Swi2p and the heterochromatin structural protein Sir3p. We find that disrupting these physical interactions results in a SWI/SNF complex that can hydrolyze ATP and slide nucleosomes like normal, but is defective in its ability to evict Sir3p off of heterochromatin. In vivo, we find that this Sir3p eviction activity is required for proper DNA replication, and for establishment of silent chromatin, but not for SWI/SNF’s traditional roles in transcription. These data establish new roles for ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling in regulating heterochromatin.
Second, we discover that SWI/SNF can disrupt heterochromatin structures that contain all three Sir proteins: Sir2p, Sir3p and Sir4p. This new disruption activity requires nucleosomal contacts that are essential for silent chromatin formation in vivo. We find that SWI/SNF evicts all three heterochromatin proteins off of chromatin. Surprisingly, we also find that the presence of Sir2p and Sir4p on chromatin stimulates SWI/SNF to evict histone proteins H2A and H2B from nucleosomes. Apart from discovering a new potential mechanism of heterochromatin dynamics, these data also establish a new paradigm of chromatin remodeling enzyme regulation by nonhistone proteins present on the substrate.
Fireflies are beetles that generate yellow-green light when their luciferase enzyme activates and oxidizes its substrate, D-luciferin. This bioluminescent reaction is widely used as a sensitive reporter both in vitro and in vivo. However, the light-emitting chemistry is limited by the properties of the small molecule D-luciferin. Our lab has developed a panel of synthetic luciferin analogs that improve on the inherent characteristics of D-luciferin. My thesis work focuses on harnessing these novel substrates to further expand the utility and molecular understanding of firefly bioluminescence.
The first part of my thesis focuses on using synthetic luciferins to improve bioluminescence imaging beyond what is possible with D-luciferin. Our substrates emit red-shifted light compared to D-luciferin, bringing the wavelength to a range that is more able to penetrate through tissue, but at a cost of lower signal intensity. I developed mutant luciferases that increase the maximal photon flux with the synthetic luciferins over what is achievable with the wild-type luciferase, and furthermore discriminate between substrates based on their chemical structures. Additionally, I have expanded the bioluminescence toolkit by harnessing the intrinsic properties of the luciferins to non-invasively and specifically assay the activity of a single enzyme (fatty acid amide hydrolase) in live mice. Therefore, my work presents an effective way to generally improve upon bioluminescent reporters, but also to measure the activity of a specific enzyme of interest in the context of a living organism.
The second part of my thesis employs synthetic luciferins to more deeply probe the light-emitting chemistry of bioluminescence. Our synthetic substrates reveal latent luciferase activity from multiple luciferase homologs that are inactive with D-luciferin. These enzymes, the fatty acyl-CoA synthetases, are predicted to be luciferase’s evolutionary predecessors, but it was not clear how the light emitting chemistry originated. My work shows that the luciferase must activate the luciferin and provide oxygen access, but the light emitting chemistry is a fundamental property of that activated intermediate. In summary, the work described herein not only expands our understanding of firefly bioluminescence, but also broadens its practical applications to shine bioluminescent light on the dark corners of biology.
Interactions between 3´ untranslated regions (UTRs) and RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) play critical roles in post-transcriptional gene regulation. Metazoan genomes encode hundreds of RBPs and thousands of 3’ UTRs have been experimentally identified, yet the spectrum of interactions between 3´UTRs and RBPs remains largely unknown. Several methods are available to map these interactions, including protein-centered methods such as RBP immunoprecipitation (RIP) and cross-link immunoprecipitation (CLIP), yeast three-hybrid assays and RNAcompete. However, there is a paucity of RNA-centered approaches for assaying an RNA element of interest against multiple RBPs in a parallel, scalable manner.
Here, I present a strategy for delineating protein-RNA interaction networks using a gene centered approach. This approach includes annotating RBPs and identifying physical interactions between an RNA of interest and these RBPs using the Protein-RNA Interaction Mapping Assay (PRIMA). Few RBPs have been experimentally determined in most eukaryotic organisms. Therefore I show that existing RBP annotations can be supplemented using computational predictions of RNA binding domains (RBD) from protein sequences. A single RNA of interest can be tested using PRIMA against a library of RBPs constructed from these annotations. PRIMA utilizes the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in yeast as a reporter.
PRIMA is based on reconstitution of the interaction between the 5´ and 3´ ends of an mRNA, which increases mRNA stability and enhances translation. PRIMA recapitulates known and uncovers new interactions involving RBPs from human, Caenorhabditis elegans and bacteriophage with short RNA fragments and full-length 3´UTRs. The development of RBP prey libraries will enable the testing of 3´UTRs against the hundreds of RBPs, which is essential to gain broad insights into post-transcriptional gene regulation at a systems level.
Columbia courts philanthropic benefactors to support research in impacts and adaptation.
Nature 530 16 doi: 10.1038/nature.2016.19260
Team at Francis Crick Institute permitted to use CRISPR–Cas9 technology in embryos for early-development research.
Nature 530 18 doi: 10.1038/nature.2016.19270