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?
A single-cell transcriptome atlas for zebrafish development.
Dev Biol. 2020 03 15;459(2):100-108
Authors: Farnsworth DR, Saunders LM, Miller AC
The ability to define cell types and how they change during organogenesis is central to our understanding of animal development and human disease. Despite the crucial nature of this knowledge, we have yet to fully characterize all distinct cell types and the gene expression differences that generate cell types during development. To address this knowledge gap, we produced an atlas using single-cell RNA-sequencing methods to investigate gene expression from the pharyngula to early larval stages in developing zebrafish. Our single-cell transcriptome atlas encompasses transcriptional profiles from 44,102 cells across four days of development using duplicate experiments that confirmed high reproducibility. We annotated 220 identified clusters and highlighted several strategies for interrogating changes in gene expression associated with the development of zebrafish embryos at single-cell resolution. Furthermore, we highlight the power of this analysis to assign new cell-type or developmental stage-specific expression information to many genes, including those that are currently known only by sequence and/or that lack expression information altogether. The resulting atlas is a resource for biologists to generate hypotheses for functional analysis, which we hope integrates with existing efforts to define the diversity of cell-types during zebrafish organogenesis, and to examine the transcriptional profiles that produce each cell type over developmental time.
PMID: 31782996 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
An intestinal cell type in zebrafish is the nexus for the SARS-CoV-2 receptor and the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System that contributes to COVID-19 comorbidities.
bioRxiv. 2020 Sep 02;:
Authors: Postlethwait JH, Farnsworth DR, Miller AC
People with underlying conditions, including hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, are especially susceptible to negative outcomes after infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. These COVID-19 comorbidities are exacerbated by the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System (RAAS), which normally protects from rapidly dropping blood pressure or dehydration via the peptide Angiotensin II (Ang II) produced by the enzyme Ace. The Ace paralog Ace2 degrades Ang II, thus counteracting its chronic effects. Ace2 is also the SARS-CoV-2 receptor. Ace , the coronavirus, and COVID-19 comorbidities all regulate Ace2 , but we don't yet understand how. To exploit zebrafish ( Danio rerio ) as a disease model to understand mechanisms regulating the RAAS and its relationship to COVID-19 comorbidities, we must first identify zebrafish orthologs and co-orthologs of human RAAS genes, and second, understand where and when these genes are expressed in specific cells in zebrafish development. To achieve these goals, we conducted genomic analyses and investigated single cell transcriptomes. Results showed that most human RAAS genes have an ortholog in zebrafish and some have two or more co-orthologs. Results further identified a specific intestinal cell type in zebrafish larvae as the site of expression for key RAAS components, including Ace, Ace2, the coronavirus co-receptor Slc6a19, and the Angiotensin-related peptide cleaving enzymes Anpep and Enpep. Results also identified specific vascular cell subtypes as expressing Ang II receptors, apelin , and apelin receptor genes. These results identify specific genes and cell types to exploit zebrafish as a disease model for understanding the mechanisms leading to COVID-19 comorbidities.
SUMMARY STATEMENT: Genomic analyses identify zebrafish orthologs of the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System that contribute to COVID-19 comorbidities and single-cell transcriptomics show that they act in a specialized intestinal cell type.
PMID: 32908984 [PubMed]