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?
Elife. 2021 Apr 28;10:e66898. doi: 10.7554/eLife.66898.
Electrical synaptic transmission relies on neuronal gap junctions containing channels constructed by Connexins. While at chemical synapses neurotransmitter-gated ion channels are critically supported by scaffolding proteins, it is unknown if channels at electrical synapses require similar scaffold support. Here, we investigated the functional relationship between neuronal Connexins and Zonula Occludens 1 (ZO1), an intracellular scaffolding protein localized to electrical synapses. Using model electrical synapses in zebrafish Mauthner cells, we demonstrated that ZO1 is required for robust synaptic Connexin localization, but Connexins are dispensable for ZO1 localization. Disrupting this hierarchical ZO1/Connexin relationship abolishes electrical transmission and disrupts Mauthner cell-initiated escape responses. We found that ZO1 is asymmetrically localized exclusively postsynaptically at neuronal contacts where it functions to assemble intercellular channels. Thus, forming functional neuronal gap junctions requires a postsynaptic scaffolding protein. The critical function of a scaffolding molecule reveals an unanticipated complexity of molecular and functional organization at electrical synapses.
Exp Eye Res. 2021 Mar 9;206:108535. doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2021.108535. Online ahead of print.
The vertebrate lens is a valuable model system for investigating the gene expression changes that coordinate tissue differentiation due to its inclusion of two spatially separated cell types, the outer epithelial cells and the deeper denucleated fiber cells that they support. Zebrafish are a useful model system for studying lens development given the organ's rapid development in the first several days of life in an accessible, transparent embryo. While we have strong foundational knowledge of the diverse lens crystallin proteins and the basic gene regulatory networks controlling lens development, no study has detailed gene expression in a vertebrate lens at single cell resolution. Here we report an atlas of lens gene expression in zebrafish embryos and larvae at single cell resolution through five days of development, identifying a number of novel putative regulators of lens development. Our data address open questions about the temperospatial expression of α-crystallins during lens development that will support future studies of their function and provide the first detailed view of β- and γ-crystallin expression in and outside the lens. We describe divergent expression in transcription factor genes that occur as paralog pairs in the zebrafish. Finally, we examine the expression dynamics of cytoskeletal, membrane associated, RNA-binding, and transcription factor genes, identifying a number of novel patterns. Overall these data provide a foundation for identifying and characterizing lens developmental regulatory mechanisms and revealing targets for future functional studies with potential therapeutic impact.
Biol Open. 2021 Mar 23;10(3):bio058172. doi: 10.1242/bio.058172.
People with underlying conditions, including hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, are especially susceptible to negative outcomes after infection with coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Hypertension and respiratory inflammation are exacerbated by the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System (RAAS), which normally protects from rapidly dropping blood pressure via Angiotensin II (Ang II) produced by the enzyme Ace. The Ace paralog Ace2 degrades Ang II, counteracting its chronic effects, and serves as the SARS-CoV-2 receptor. Ace, the coronavirus, and COVID-19 comorbidities all regulate Ace2, but we do not yet understand how. To exploit zebrafish (Danio rerio) to help understand the relationship of the RAAS to COVID-19, we must identify zebrafish orthologs and co-orthologs of human RAAS genes and understand their expression patterns. To achieve these goals, we conducted genomic and phylogenetic analyses and investigated single cell transcriptomes. Results showed that most human RAAS genes have one or more zebrafish orthologs or co-orthologs. Results identified a specific type of enterocyte as the specific site of expression of zebrafish orthologs of key RAAS components, including Ace, Ace2, Slc6a19 (SARS-CoV-2 co-receptor), and the Angiotensin-related peptide cleaving enzymes Anpep (receptor for the common cold coronavirus HCoV-229E), and Dpp4 (receptor for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, MERS-CoV). Results identified specific vascular cell subtypes expressing Ang II receptors, apelin, and apelin receptor genes. These results identify genes and cell types to exploit zebrafish as a disease model for understanding mechanisms of COVID-19.