Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
Ph.D. University of Oregon
Postdoc, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Research Interests: Neural circuit wiring, synapse formation, and electrical synaptogenesis in zebrafish.
Overview: The human brain contains more connections between neurons than the Milky Way has stars! The brain is wired at a gross level into stereotyped neural circuits that underlie sensation, information processing, motor output, and ultimately, consciousness. Disrupted neural circuitry has been linked to many neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. How do the neurons of the brain connect and wire up into circuits? The goal of the research in the lab is to integrate genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, circuit function, and behavior, to understand how the brain creates functioning neural networks.
Neural circuits are defined by the connections made between neurons, and connections, termed synapses, come in two flavors: chemical, where transmission is mediated by neurotransmitters and receptors, and electrical, where neurons directly communicate with one another through gap junction channels. While the last decade has provided much insight into the developmental genetic mechanisms of building chemical synapses, electrical synapse formation is still not understood. However, it is known that electrical synapses are used by all animals both during development and in adulthood, and are found in sensory, central, and motor circuits. The goal of this project is to unlock the molecular mechanisms underlying electrical synaptogenesis.
Using zebrafish as a model system we have performed a forward genetic screen to identify mutations that cause defects in electrical synapse formation. Mapping mutations from forward genetic screens is challenging, particularly in large vertebrate genomes, but we have developed methods using on next generation sequencing which facilitate the identification of mutated genes (Genome Research). One of the mutations identified in the screen disrupted the autism-associated gene neurobeachin and we found that it was required for both electrical and chemical synapse formation, placing this gene as a critical lynchpin in all of synapse formation (Current Biology). We have also developed a novel CRISPR-based reverse genetic screening method to identify genes required for development – this was the first example that such an approach could be taken in a vertebrate (Nature Methods). The screen identified structural proteins that create the gap junction channel between the neurons and scaffolding that stabilize the synaptic structure. Ongoing work has revealed that electrical synapses can be asymmetric, with unique proteins on each side of the junction. This molecular asymmetry may underlie functional asymmetry and provide differential substrates for altering electrical synapse function.
Current projects focus on several diverse, but related, areas of electrical synaptogenesis:
1) Electrical synapse asymmetry – biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics
How do the proteins of the synapse function at the molecular level to form the connection? What proteins interact and how do those interactions build the synapse? What other proteins are present at the synapse?
2) Electrical synapse formation – cell biology, development, and genetics
How are proteins trafficked to the synapse? How are they captured and stabilized once present? What are the cytoskeletal structures and motor proteins that facilitate movement? How long do proteins remain at the synapse and are they responsive to neuronal activity?
3) Electrical synapse function – behavior and physiology
Does the composition of the electrical synapse change based on circuit activity? Do molecular asymmetries produce effects on synapse function? How are molecular asymmetries integrated into circuit level function and behavioral output?
4) Electrical and chemical synapse interactions – physiology, development, and genetics
Are early-forming electrical synapses required for subsequent chemical synapse formation? What gap junction channels and scaffolds mediate early circuit activity? How are some early-forming electrical synapses removed as neural circuits mature? How are others retained?
Asymmetry of an Intracellular Scaffold at Vertebrate Electrical Synapses.
Curr Biol. 2017 Nov 20;27(22):3561-3567.e4
Authors: Marsh AJ, Michel JC, Adke AP, Heckman EL, Miller AC
Neuronal synaptic connections are either chemical or electrical, and these two types of synapses work together to dynamically define neural circuit function . Although we know a great deal about the molecules that support chemical synapse formation and function, we know little about the macromolecular complexes that regulate electrical synapses. Electrical synapses are created by gap junction (GJ) channels that provide direct ionic communication between neurons . Although they are often molecularly and functionally symmetric, recent work has found that pre- and postsynaptic neurons can contribute different GJ-forming proteins, creating molecularly asymmetric channels that are correlated with functional asymmetry at the synapse [3, 4]. Associated with the GJs are structures observed by electron microscopy termed the electrical synapse density (ESD) . The ESD has been suggested to be critical for the formation and function of the electrical synapse, yet the biochemical makeup of these structures is poorly understood. Here we find that electrical synapse formation in vivo requires an intracellular scaffold called Tight Junction Protein 1b (Tjp1b). Tjp1b is localized to the electrical synapse, where it is required for the stabilization of the GJs and for electrical synapse function. Strikingly, we find that Tjp1b protein localizes and functions asymmetrically, exclusively on the postsynaptic side of the synapse. Our findings support a novel model of electrical synapse molecular asymmetry at the level of an intracellular scaffold that is required for building the electrical synapse. We propose that such ESD asymmetries could be used by all nervous systems to support molecular and functional asymmetries at electrical synapses.
PMID: 29103941 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
A genetic basis for molecular asymmetry at vertebrate electrical synapses.
Elife. 2017 05 22;6:
Authors: Miller AC, Whitebirch AC, Shah AN, Marsden KC, Granato M, O'Brien J, Moens CB
Neural network function is based upon the patterns and types of connections made between neurons. Neuronal synapses are adhesions specialized for communication and they come in two types, chemical and electrical. Communication at chemical synapses occurs via neurotransmitter release whereas electrical synapses utilize gap junctions for direct ionic and metabolic coupling. Electrical synapses are often viewed as symmetrical structures, with the same components making both sides of the gap junction. By contrast, we show that a broad set of electrical synapses in zebrafish, Danio rerio, require two gap-junction-forming Connexins for formation and function. We find that one Connexin functions presynaptically while the other functions postsynaptically in forming the channels. We also show that these synapses are required for the speed and coordination of escape responses. Our data identify a genetic basis for molecular asymmetry at vertebrate electrical synapses and show they are required for appropriate behavioral performance.
PMID: 28530549 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Targeted candidate gene screens using CRISPR/Cas9 technology.
Methods Cell Biol. 2016;135:89-106
Authors: Shah AN, Moens CB, Miller AC
In the postgenomic era, the ability to quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively assign function to the zebrafish proteome is critical. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs) have revolutionized the ability to perform reverse genetics because of its simplicity and broad applicability. The CRISPR system is composed of an engineered, gene-specific single guide RNA (sgRNA) and a Cas9 enzyme that causes double-stranded breaks in DNA at the targeted site. This simple, two-part system, when injected into one-cell stage zebrafish embryos, efficiently mutates target loci at a frequency such that injected embryos phenocopy known mutant phenotypes. This property allows for CRISPR-based F0 screening in zebrafish, which provides a means to screen through a large number of candidate genes for their role in a phenotype of interest. While there are important considerations for any successful genetic screen, CRISPR screening has significant benefits over conventional methods and can be accomplished in any lab with modest molecular biology experience.
PMID: 27443921 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Rapid Reverse Genetic Screening Using CRISPR in Zebrafish.
Zebrafish. 2016 04;13(2):152-3
Authors: Shah AN, Davey CF, Whitebirch AC, Miller AC, Moens CB
PMID: 26153617 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Rapid reverse genetic screening using CRISPR in zebrafish.
Nat Methods. 2015 Jun;12(6):535-40
Authors: Shah AN, Davey CF, Whitebirch AC, Miller AC, Moens CB
Identifying genes involved in biological processes is critical for understanding the molecular building blocks of life. We used engineered CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to efficiently mutate specific loci in zebrafish (Danio rerio) and screen for genes involved in vertebrate biological processes. We found that increasing CRISPR efficiency by injecting optimized amounts of Cas9-encoding mRNA and multiplexing single guide RNAs (sgRNAs) allowed for phenocopy of known mutants across many phenotypes in embryos. We performed a proof-of-concept screen in which we used intersecting, multiplexed pool injections to examine 48 loci and identified two new genes involved in electrical-synapse formation. By deep sequencing target loci, we found that 90% of the genes were effectively screened. We conclude that CRISPR can be used as a powerful reverse genetic screening strategy in vivo in a vertebrate system.
PMID: 25867848 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Polycomb group genes are required to maintain a binary fate choice in the Drosophila eye.
Neural Dev. 2015 Jan 31;10:2
Authors: Finley JK, Miller AC, Herman TG
BACKGROUND: Identifying the mechanisms by which cells remain irreversibly committed to their fates is a critical step toward understanding and being able to manipulate development and homeostasis. Polycomb group (PcG) proteins are chromatin modifiers that maintain transcriptional silencing, and loss of PcG genes causes widespread derepression of many developmentally important genes. However, because of their broad effects, the degree to which PcG proteins are used at specific fate choice points has not been tested. To understand how fate choices are maintained, we have been analyzing R7 photoreceptor neuron development in the fly eye. R1, R6, and R7 neurons are recruited from a pool of equivalent precursors. In order to adopt the R7 fate, these precursors make three binary choices. They: (1) adopt a neuronal fate, as a consequence of high receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) activity (they would otherwise become non-neuronal support cells); (2) fail to express Seven-up (Svp), as a consequence of Notch (N) activation (they would otherwise express Svp and become R1/R6 neurons); and (3) fail to express Senseless (Sens), as a parallel consequence of N activation (they would otherwise express Sens and become R8 neurons in the absence of Svp). We were able to remove PcG genes specifically from post-mitotic R1/R6/R7 precursors, allowing us to probe these genes' roles in the three binary fate choices that R1/R6/R7 precursors face when differentiating as R7s.
RESULTS: Here, we show that loss of the PcG genes Sce, Scm, or Pc specifically affects one of the three binary fate choices that R7 precursors must make: mutant R7s derepress Sens and adopt R8 fate characteristics. We find that this fate transformation occurs independently of the PcG genes' canonical role in repressing Hox genes. While N initially establishes Sens repression in R7s, we show that N is not required to keep Sens off, nor do these PcG genes act downstream of N. Instead, the PcG genes act independently of N to maintain Sens repression in R1/R6/R7 precursors that adopt the R7 fate.
CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that cells can use PcG genes specifically to maintain a subset of their binary fate choices.
PMID: 25636358 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Neurobeachin is required postsynaptically for electrical and chemical synapse formation.
Curr Biol. 2015 Jan 05;25(1):16-28
Authors: Miller AC, Voelker LH, Shah AN, Moens CB
BACKGROUND: Neural networks and their function are defined by synapses, which are adhesions specialized for intercellular communication that can be either chemical or electrical. At chemical synapses, transmission between neurons is mediated by neurotransmitters, whereas at electrical synapses, direct ionic and metabolic coupling occur via gap junctions between neurons. The molecular pathways required for electrical synaptogenesis are not well understood, and whether they share mechanisms of formation with chemical synapses is not clear.
RESULTS: Here, using a forward genetic screen in zebrafish, we find that the autism-associated gene neurobeachin (nbea), which encodes a BEACH-domain-containing protein implicated in endomembrane trafficking, is required for both electrical and chemical synapse formation. Additionally, we find that nbea is dispensable for axonal formation and early dendritic outgrowth but is required to maintain dendritic complexity. These synaptic and morphological defects correlate with deficiencies in behavioral performance. Using chimeric animals in which individually identifiable neurons are either mutant or wild-type, we find that Nbea is necessary and sufficient autonomously in the postsynaptic neuron for both synapse formation and dendritic arborization.
CONCLUSIONS: Our data identify a surprising link between electrical and chemical synapse formation and show that Nbea acts as a critical regulator in the postsynaptic neuron for the coordination of dendritic morphology with synaptogenesis.
PMID: 25484298 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
RNA-seq-based mapping and candidate identification of mutations from forward genetic screens.
Genome Res. 2013 Apr;23(4):679-86
Authors: Miller AC, Obholzer ND, Shah AN, Megason SG, Moens CB
Forward genetic screens have elucidated molecular pathways required for innumerable aspects of life; however, identifying the causal mutations from such screens has long been the bottleneck in the process, particularly in vertebrates. We have developed an RNA-seq-based approach that identifies both the region of the genome linked to a mutation and candidate lesions that may be causal for the phenotype of interest. We show that our method successfully identifies zebrafish mutations that cause nonsense or missense changes to codons, alter transcript splicing, or alter gene expression levels. Furthermore, we develop an easily accessible bioinformatics pipeline allowing for implementation of all steps of the method. Overall, we show that RNA-seq is a fast, reliable, and cost-effective method to map and identify mutations that will greatly facilitate the power of forward genetics in vertebrate models.
PMID: 23299976 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]