Working with fruit flies, Johns Hopkins scientists have decoded the activity of protein signals that let certain nerve cells know when and where to branch so that they reach and connect to their correct muscle targets. The proteins' mammalian counterparts are known to have signaling roles in immunity, nervous system and heart development, and tumor progression, suggesting broad implications for human disease research. A report of the research was published online Nov. 21 in the journal Neuron.
To control muscle movements, fruit flies, like other animals, have a set of nerve cells called motor neurons that connect muscle fibers to the nerve cord, a structure similar to the spinal cord, which in turn connects to the brain. During embryonic development, the nerve cells send wire-like projections, or axons, from the nerve cord structure out to their targets. Initially, multiple axons travel together in a convoy, but as they move forward, some axons must exit the "highway" at specific points to reach particular targets.
In their experiments, the researchers learned that axons travelling together have proteins on their surfaces that act like two-way radios, allowing the axons to communicate with each other and coordinate their travel patterns, thus ensuring that every muscle fiber gets connected to a nerve cell. "When axons fail to branch, or when they branch too early and too often, fruits flies, and presumably other animals, can be left without crucial muscle-nerve connections," says Alex Kolodkin, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes investigator and professor of neuroscience at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
At the center of the communications system, Kolodkin says, is a protein called Sema-1a, already known to reside on the surface of motor neuron axons. If a neighboring axon has a different protein, called PlexA, on its surface, it will be repulsed by Sema-1a and will turn away from the axon bundle. So Sema-1a acts as an instructional signal and PlexA as its receptor. In the fruit fly study, the scientists discovered that Sema-1a can also act as a receptor for PlexA. "We used to think that this pair of surface proteins acted as a one-way radio, with information flowing in a single direction," says Kolodkin. "What we found is that instructional information flows both ways."