Think global, act local: new roles for protein synthesis at synapses
Max Planck researchers find over 2500 mRNA along dendrites and axons
Using microarray approaches and/or in situ hybridization techniques, many different groups had each identified a hundred or so mRNAs that might reside in the dendrites. By analysing and comparing these studies the Schuman team discovered something surprising: it seems that not a single mRNA type was found in all three studies. This observation made the scientist at the MPI for Brain Research wonder whether the already discovered mRNAs are just the tip of the iceberg and whether there were many more mRNA molecules waiting to be discovered.
In order to find out the researchers dissected the neuropil layer of the rat hippocampus. This layer comprises a high concentration of axons and dendrites, but lacks the cell bodies of pyramidal neurons (the principal cell type in the hippocampus and other brain areas). By using sensitive high-resolution sequencing techniques, mRNAs could be detected which, due to their lower concentrations, were not discovered before. The researchers found an impressive number of 2550 unique mRNAs present at the dendrites and/or axons. To determine the relative abundance in the neuronal cells, the scientists at Erin Schuman's lab used the Nanostring nCounter, a new technique allowing the high-resolution visualization and quantification of single mRNA molecules. They found that the concentration of mRNAs in the euronal cells varies by three orders of magnitude. Additionally, the researchers were able to classify many of the mRNAs and determine their function in synaptic plasticity. These include signalling molecules, scaffolds and the receptors for neurotransmitter molecules. In addition, many mRNAs coding for protein implicated in diseases like autism were discovered in the dendrites and axons. Finally, by using advanced imaging techniques, the researchers could directly visualize some of the mRNAs in the neuronal dendrites, hundreds of micrometres from the cell body.
These results reveal a previously unappreciated enormous potential for the local protein synthesis machinery to supply, maintain and modify the dendritic and synaptic protein population. It seems that neurons use a local control mechanism much in the same way that modern societies have learned that the most efficient means to distribute goods to the population is to use local distribution centres.