During normal development, trillions of neurons reach out for others with long, slender extensions to touch, connect and wire the budding nervous system. As the hair-like protrusions, called axons, grope around in the developing embryo, trying to find their proper targets, molecular ushers stationed along their path steer them in the right direction.
"Because of the vast number of neurons in the nervous system, ensuring that every single cell is on target creates more biological complexity than we can account for with the genetic information encoded in our genome," says Pfaff. "There are an estimated 100 trillion connections in our brain and only about 20,000 genes."
To find their course, growing neurons, especially motor neurons, which need to travel very long distances to reach their targets, navigate their path one small segment at a time, guided at each intersection by intermediate guidepostschemical cues that attract or repel approaching axons. What's more, in a tightly regulated choreography, axons often switch allegiances when they reach a critical junction.
"It provides a way of creating some of these intermediate temporal steps," explains postdoctoral researcher and first author Ge Bai. "It allows the use of a small number of genes to regulate axonal growth by regulating the signals' effects in a very precise temporal and spatial ways."
He and his team found presenilin's unexpected role in controlling the activity of axon guidance signals during a search for genes involved in the fetal development of the nervous system. They had developed a method of engineering mice so that all of their motor neurons glow green. This fluorescence allowed them to visually identify mutant mice that have errors in motor neuron development and function.
One mouse, whose specific defect the rese
|Contact: Gina Kirchweger|