Rodal lab find surprising new link between inflammation and Lowe Syndrome

Could a disease with symptoms in the brain, eyes, and kidneys actually be caused by problems with immune cells? A team of scientists from the Rodal Lab, co-first authored by Steven Del Signore and Sarah Biber and including three Brandeis undergraduates (Katy Lehmann ‘16, Stephanie Heimler ‘17, and Ben Rosenfeld ’18), think this just might be the case with Lowe Syndrome, in a new paper published Oct 13th in PLOS Genetics.

Patients with Lowe Syndrome suffer from kidney failure, congenital cataracts, and several neurological problems including intellectual disability and seizures. Scientists have known for some time that the disease is caused by mutations in a gene called OCRL, but remain unsure how its loss causes such a diverse array of symptoms. A big problem has been that OCRL appears to do many different jobs inside cells, including controlling how they divide, how they sense their surroundings, and how they store and transport materials inside small packages called endosomes.

Fly immune cells showing the tracks of moving endosomes. Single tracks represent the path of individual endosomes over time.

To try to solve this mystery, a team of researchers from the Rodal lab used the fruit fly, which has its own version of the OCRL gene and allowed the investigators to perform powerful genetic experiments to figure out precisely what OCRL is doing, and where. To do this, the group created a fly missing its OCRL gene. They were surprised to find that, rather than eye or neurological defects, loss of OCRL hyper-activated cells of the innate immune system. The innate immune system is the first line of defense against infection in humans (and the only defense in fruit flies), when cells release inflammatory signals that mobilize specialized cells to attack invading pathogens.

The team determined that OCRL is required in one of these specialized immune cells in the fly, and that the immune-cell activation was caused by problems in a particular step of intracellular transport. Every cell of the body has its own postal service, which is used to pack and ship signals that tell the cell or its neighbors to grow, divide, or jump into action (see movie here to watch endosomes moving inside living fly immune cells). The OCRL mutant immune cells had a problem in a key step that controls whether signals get thrown in the trash or shipped outside the cell, and this caused the immune activation.

How do these findings relate to Lowe Syndrome? The authors think these results suggest a possible cause for the seizures that patients experience. When similar immune-like cells in the brain release excessive inflammatory signals, it can cause several forms of epilepsy. Further, OCRL has been linked to at least one mouse model of epilepsy. Going forward, the researchers will try to identify which immune signals are responsible, and how these findings translate to human cells.

Del Signore SJ (*), Biber SA (*), Lehmann KS, Heimler SR, Rosenfeld BH, Eskin TL, Sweeney ST, Rodal AA. dOCRL maintains immune cell quiescence by regulating endosomal traffic. Plos Genet. 2017;13(10):e1007052.



Tissue-specific tagging of endogenous proteins in the fruit fly

Seeing is believing, and fluorescently tagged proteins have ushered in a major revolution in cell biology. Instead of observing the static components of dead cells fixed in plastic and reacted with dyes, tagged proteins fluorescing a variety of colors can be tracked in real time in live cells and organisms. We can peek at the previously only imaginable perpetual dynamism of life at the molecular level. In addition to turning us into spell-bound voyeurs, well-defined fluorescent tags also give us a hand-hold to isolate the binding partners of proteins of interest.

In a recent article by the Rodal lab reported in Biology Open, the authors report a new tagging methods designed to get rid of technological artifacts that can cause fluorescently tagged proteins to be expressed at the wrong time and place, and at the wrong levels. By using CRISPR mediated gene editing in fruit flies, they developed a novel approach to visualize any protein of choice in any tissue of choice at the level, localization and time that nature has intended. This method, dubbed T-STEP (for tissue-specific tagging of endogenous proteins), opens up novel experimental avenues to answer long-standing questions in several areas of neuroscience and cell biology, such as: how many different neurotransmitters are expressed in one neuronal circuit? Which tissue-type is a protein expressed in and when? What happens to a disease carrying mutant protein in a tissue of interest at endogenous levels?


As a proof of principle, two endosomal proteins, Vps35 (linked to Parkinson’s disease) and OCRL (linked to Lowe syndrome), which have never before been seen or localized in fruit flies, have now been visualized live at endogenous levels. Moreover, a Parkinson’s disease-specific mutation (D620N) in Vps35 has also been tagged with fluorescent proteins, opening up exciting new research avenues for interrogating binding partners and/or kinetics that may be altered during the diseased states.

In summary, T-STEP is an exciting novel tool that offers a simple and efficient method to tissue-specifically tag any protein at endogenous levels. Authors from the Rodal lab include Kate Koles (Research Scientist) and Anna Yeh ’16.

Lipids hit a “sweet spot” to direct cellular membrane remodeling.

Lipid membrane reshaping is critical to many common cellular processes, including cargo trafficking, cell motility, and organelle biogenesis. The Rodal lab studies how dynamic membrane remodeling is achieved by the active interplay between lipids and proteins. Recent results, published in Cell Reports, demonstrate that for the membrane remodeling protein Nervous Wreck (Nwk), intramolecular autoregulation and membrane charge work together in surprising ways to restrict remodeling to a limited range of lipid compositions.

F-BAR (Fes/Cip4 homology Bin/Amphiphysin/Rvs) domain family proteins are important mediators of membrane remodeling events. The F-BAR domain forms a crescent-shaped α-helical dimer that interacts with and deforms negatively charged membrane phospholipids by assembling into higher-order scaffolds. In this paper, Kelley et al. have shown that the neuronal F-BAR protein Nwk is autoregulated by its C-terminal SH3 domains, which interact directly with the F-BAR domain to inhibit membrane binding. Until now, the dogma in the field has been that increasing concentrations of negatively charged lipids would increase Nwk membrane binding, and thus would induce membrane deformation.

Surprisingly, Kelley et al. found that autoregulation does not mediate this kind of simple “on-off” switch for membrane remodeling. Instead, increasing the concentration of negatively charged lipids increases membrane binding, but inhibits F-BAR membrane deforming activities (see below). Using a combination of in vitro assays and single particle electron microscopy, they found that the Nwk F-BAR domain efficiently assembles into higher-order structures and deforms membranes only within “sweet spot” of negative membrane charge, and that autoregulation elevates this range. The implication of this work is that autoregulation could either reduce membrane binding or promote higher-order assembly, depending on local cellular membrane composition. This study suggests a significant role for the regulation of membrane composition in remodeling.

Brandeis authors on the study included Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students Charlotte Kelley and Shiyu Wang, staff member Tania Eskin, and undergraduate Emily Messelaar ’13 from the Rodal lab; postdoctoral fellow Kangkang Song, Associate Professor of Biology Daniela Nicastro (currently at UT Southwestern), and Associate Professor of Physics Michael Hagan.

Kelley CF, Messelaar EM, Eskin TL, Wang S, Song K, Vishnia K, Becalska AN, Shupliakov O, Hagan MF, Danino D, Sokolova OS, Nicastro D, Rodal AA. Membrane Charge Directs the Outcome of F-BAR Domain Lipid Binding and Autoregulation. Cell reports. 2015;13(11):2597-609.

Mugdha Deshpande named Blazeman Postdoctoral Fellow

Assistant Professor of Biology Avital Rodal has received a grant from the Blazeman Foundation to study the traffic of growth signals in neurons in the animal models of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).  ALS, commonly known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’, is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the loss of motor neurons. The Blazeman Foundation is a non-profit organization working to increase the awareness about this terminal disease and to support research towards finding treatments. Funding to the Rodal lab has enabled creation of the Blazeman Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for ALS Research, awarded to Mugdha Deshpande, Ph.D., who will use live imaging to examine and manipulate membrane traffic in fruit fly models of ALS, and who will also work with Dr. Suzanne Paradis to translate her findings to mammalian ALS models.

You can read more at BrandeisNOW.

Nervous Wreck forms zig-zags to induce membrane ridges and scallops.

Em:LM Nwk F-BAR S2

Merged LM/EM images of Drosophila S2 cells featuring Nwk F-BAR induced protrusions.

Sorting and processing of the proteins that span cell membranes requires extensive membrane remodeling , including budding, tubulation, and fission. F-BAR domains form crescent-shaped dimers that bind to and deform membranes. Until now, it was thought that proteins containing these F-BAR domains induced membrane tubulation by assembling in highly ordered helical coats on lipid bilayers.

A new paper in Molecular Biology of the Cell from the Rodal lab (in collaboration with the Nicastro lab and the Sokolova Lab at Lomonosov Moscow State University) describes a novel membrane deforming activity for Nervous Wreck (Nwk), an F-BAR protein that regulates trafficking of transmembrane growth signal receptors at the Drosophila neuromuscular junction. The authors found that Nwk assembles into zig-zags on lipid monolayers, unlike the canonical F-BAR protein CIP4 which forms long filaments, even though the two proteins are predicted to be very structurally similar.  Unlike other members of the F-BAR family that tubulate the membrane, Nwk can induce the formation of membrane ridges and scallops (see figure below). These deformations can lead to dramatic cellular remodeling in cooperation with the cytoskeleton (see figure above). The work done by the Rodal lab suggests that while basic self-assembly and membrane binding properties are likely conserved between F-BAR proteins, the higher-order organization of Nwk may account for differences in membrane remodeling and its specialized role in the cell.

Nwk Model

Rodal named 2013 Pew Scholar

Assistant Professor of Biology Avital Rodal has been named a 2013 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. The program “gives innovative scientists both the freedom to take calculated risks and the resources to pursue the most promising, but untried, avenues for scientific breakthroughs”, according to Rebecca W. Rimel, President and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Rodal has been recognized for her work in understanding the role of membrane deformation and dembrane trafficking in neurons, which evidence is starting to implicate in neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, ALS).

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