Neurons extend fibers called axons to target cells in an exuberant manner--some branch to the "wrong" cells while others shoot past their target cells. Axon pieces that went astray degenerate, effectively being "pruned" back. Similarly, when axons are forcibly severed or seriously injured by disease in adults, they die and are removed by degeneration.
Scientists have speculated that the same molecular shears used to trim axon branches in injured adult axons also do so during normal developmental pruning. In a forthcoming issue of Neuron, teams at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Stanford University revise that notion and, in doing so, suggest how nerve function could be preserved after injury.
The collaboration began when senior co-authors Liqun Luo, PhD., a professor at Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, and Dennis D.M. O'Leary, a professor in the Salk Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, co-wrote a review on neurodegeneration. Of O'Leary, Luo says, "When they asked me to write this review I found that half these things were started by Dennis." O'Leary adds, "We had a great time writing the review and it hatched the idea to combine our ideas."
They combined data collected by Luo's lab in fruitflies with experiments done in mice by O'Leary and co-lead author Todd McLaughlin, a postdoctoral fellow in the O'Leary lab.
When cut, axons in mice or fruitflies degenerate quickly. However, in so called Wlds mice, a naturally occurring mutant strain discovered years ago, the process is slowed, because the mice make a mutant protein--known as Wlds --that inhibits degeneration.