SAMPL is a high-throughput solution to study unconstrained vertical behavior in small animals
Balance and movement are impaired in many neurological disorders. Recent advances in behavioral monitoring provide unprecedented access to posture and locomotor kinematics but without the throughput and scalability necessary to screen candidate genes/potential therapeutics. Here, we present a scalable apparatus to measure posture and locomotion (SAMPL). SAMPL includes extensible hardware and open-source software with real-time processing and can acquire data from D. melanogaster, C. elegans, and D. rerio as they move vertically. Using SAMPL, we define how zebrafish balance as they navigate vertically and discover small but systematic variations among kinematic parameters between genetic backgrounds. We demonstrate SAMPL's ability to resolve differences in posture and navigation as a function of effect size and data gathered, providing key data for screens. SAMPL is therefore both a tool to model balance and locomotor disorders and an exemplar of how to scale apparatus to support screens.
High-fidelity encoding of mechanostimuli by tactile food-sensing neurons requires an ensemble of ion channels
The nematode C. elegans uses mechanosensitive neurons to detect bacteria, which are food for worms. These neurons release dopamine to suppress foraging and promote dwelling. Through a screen of genes highly expressed in dopaminergic food-sensing neurons, we identify a K2P-family potassium channel-TWK-2-that damps their activity. Strikingly, loss of TWK-2 restores mechanosensation to neurons lacking the NOMPC-like channel transient receptor potential 4 (TRP-4), which was thought to be the primary mechanoreceptor for tactile food sensing. The alternate mechanoreceptor mechanism uncovered by TWK-2 mutation requires three Deg/ENaC channel subunits: ASIC-1, DEL-3, and UNC-8. Analysis of cell-physiological responses to mechanostimuli indicates that TRP and Deg/ENaC channels work together to set the range of analog encoding of stimulus intensity and to improve signal-to-noise characteristics and temporal fidelity of food-sensing neurons. We conclude that a specialized mechanosensory modality-tactile food sensing-emerges from coordination of distinct force-sensing mechanisms housed in one type of sensory neuron.
Opponent vesicular transporters regulate the strength of glutamatergic neurotransmission in a C. elegans sensory circuit
At chemical synapses, neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles that release their contents in response to depolarization. Despite its central role in synaptic function, regulation of the machinery that loads vesicles with neurotransmitters remains poorly understood. We find that synaptic glutamate signaling in a C. elegans chemosensory circuit is regulated by antagonistic interactions between the canonical vesicular glutamate transporter EAT-4/VGLUT and another vesicular transporter, VST-1. Loss of VST-1 strongly potentiates glutamate release from chemosensory BAG neurons and disrupts chemotaxis behavior. Analysis of the circuitry downstream of BAG neurons shows that excess glutamate release disrupts behavior by inappropriately recruiting RIA interneurons to the BAG-associated chemotaxis circuit. Our data indicate that in vivo the strength of glutamatergic synapses is controlled by regulation of neurotransmitter packaging into synaptic vesicles via functional coupling of VGLUT and VST-1.
Development of specialized sensory neurons engages a nuclear receptor required for functional plasticity
During development, the nervous system generates neurons that serve highly specialized roles and, accordingly, possess unique functional attributes. The chemosensory BAG neurons of C. elegans are striking exemplars of this. BAGs sense the respiratory gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and, in a context-dependent manner, switch from mediating avoidance of CO2 to supporting CO2 attraction. To determine mechanisms that support the physiology and plasticity of BAG neurons, we used tandem ChIP-seq and cell targeted RNA-seq to identify gene targets of the transcription factor ETS-5, which is required for BAG development. A functional screen of ETS-5 targets revealed that NHR-6, the sole C. elegans NR4A-type nuclear receptor, is required for BAG-mediated avoidance of CO2 and regulates expression of a subset of BAG-specific genes. Unlike ets-5 mutants, which are defective for both attraction to and avoidance of CO2, nhr-6 mutants are fully competent for attraction. These data indicate that the remarkable ability of BAGs to adaptively assign positive or negative valence to a chemosensory stimulus requires a gene-regulatory program supported by an evolutionarily conserved type of nuclear receptor. We suggest that NHR-6 might be an example of a developmental mechanism for modular encoding of functional plasticity in the nervous system.
A microbial metabolite synergizes with endogenous serotonin to trigger C. elegans reproductive behavior
Natural products are a major source of small-molecule therapeutics, including those that target the nervous system. We have used a simple serotonin-dependent behavior of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, egg laying, to perform a behavior-based screen for natural products that affect serotonin signaling. Our screen yielded agonists of G protein-coupled serotonin receptors, protein kinase C agonists, and a microbial metabolite not previously known to interact with serotonin signaling pathways: the disulfide-bridged 2,5-diketopiperazine gliotoxin. Effects of gliotoxin on egg-laying behavior required the G protein-coupled serotonin receptors SER-1 and SER-7, and the Gq ortholog EGL-30. Furthermore, mutants lacking serotonergic neurons and mutants that cannot synthesize serotonin were profoundly resistant to gliotoxin. Exogenous serotonin restored their sensitivity to gliotoxin, indicating that this compound synergizes with endogenous serotonin to elicit behavior. These data show that a microbial metabolite with no structural similarity to known serotonergic agonists potentiates an endogenous serotonin signal to affect behavior. Based on this study, we suggest that microbial metabolites are a rich source of functionally novel neuroactive molecules.
Insulin-like Peptides as Agents of Social Change
Many behaviors promote reproduction or food finding. These critical functions of behavior can conflict; successful reproductive strategies can grow populations to the point where food is depleted. In this issue of Neuron, Wu etÂ al. (2019) show how the nematode C.Â elegans detects crowding to change feeding behavior by coupling pheromone sensing to signaling via insulin-like peptides.
Repression of an activity-dependent autocrine insulin signal is required for sensory neuron development in C. elegans
Nervous system development is instructed by genetic programs and refined by distinct mechanisms that couple neural activity to gene expression. How these processes are integrated remains poorly understood. Here, we report that the regulated release of insulin-like peptides (ILPs) during development of the C. elegans nervous system accomplishes such an integration. We find that the p38 MAP kinase PMK-3, which is required for the differentiation of chemosensory BAG neurons, limits an ILP signal that represses expression of a BAG neuron fate. ILPs are released from BAGs themselves in an activity-dependent manner during development, indicating that ILPs constitute an autocrine signal that regulates the differentiation of BAG neurons. Expression of a specialized neuronal fate is, therefore, coordinately regulated by a genetic program that sets levels of ILP expression during development and by neural activity, which regulates ILP release. Autocrine signals of this kind might have general and conserved functions as integrators of deterministic genetic programs with activity-dependent mechanisms during neurodevelopment.
Proneural factors Ascl1 and Neurog2 contribute to neuronal subtype identities by establishing distinct chromatin landscapes
Developmental programs that generate the astonishing neuronal diversity of the nervous system are not completely understood and thus present a major challenge for clinical applications of guided cell differentiation strategies. Using direct neuronal programming of embryonic stem cells, we found that two main vertebrate proneural factors, Ascl1 and neurogenin 2 (Neurog2), induce different neuronal fates by binding to largely different sets of genomic sites. Their divergent binding patterns are not determined by the previous chromatin state, but are distinguished by enrichment of specific E-box sequences that reflect the binding preferences of the DNA-binding domains. The divergent Ascl1 and Neurog2 binding patterns result in distinct chromatin accessibility and enhancer activity profiles that differentially shape the binding of downstream transcription factors during neuronal differentiation. This study provides a mechanistic understanding of how transcription factors constrain terminal cell fates, and it delineates the importance of choosing the right proneural factor in neuronal reprogramming strategies.
Lineage context switches the function of a C. elegans Pax6 homolog in determining a neuronal fate
The sensory nervous system of C. elegans comprises cells with varied molecular and functional characteristics and is, therefore, a powerful model for understanding mechanisms that generate neuronal diversity. We report here that VAB-3, a C. elegans homolog of the homeodomain-containing protein Pax6, has opposing functions in regulating expression of a specific chemosensory fate. A homeodomain-only short isoform of VAB-3 is expressed in BAG chemosensory neurons, where it promotes gene expression and cell function. In other cells, a long isoform of VAB-3 comprised of a Paired homology domain and a homeodomain represses expression of ETS-5, a transcription factor required for expression of BAG fate. Repression of ets-5 requires the Eyes Absent homolog EYA-1 and the Six-class homeodomain protein CEH-32. We determined sequences that mediate high-affinity binding of ETS-5, VAB-3, and CEH-32. The ets-5 locus is enriched for ETS-5-binding sites but lacks sequences that bind VAB-3 and CEH-32, suggesting that these factors do not directly repress ets-5 expression. We propose that a promoter-selection system together with lineage-specific expression of accessory factors allows VAB-3/Pax6 to either promote or repress expression of specific cell fates in a context-dependent manner.
The people behind the papers
A fundamental aim in developmental biology is to understand how the various cell types of the body are specified by differential gene regulation. Caenorhabditis elegans nervous system development provides a powerful system for studying this, as exemplified by a new Development paper reporting on how the BAG neurons that help the worm sense oxygen and carbon dioxide are specified. We caught up with first authors Julia Brandt and Mary Rossillo and their supervisor Niels Ringstad (Associate Professor at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and Department of Cell Biology at New York University) to find out more about the story.