Scientists have discovered how a single protein can exert both a push and a pull force to nudge a neuron in the desired direction, helping neurons navigate to their assigned places in the developing brain.
Jia-huai Wang, PhD, who led the work at Dana-Farber and Peking University in Beijing, is a corresponding author of a report published in the August 7 online edition of Neuron that explains how one guidance protein, netrin-1, can either attract or repel a brain cell to steer it along its course. Wang and co-authors at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg, Germany, used X-ray crystallography to reveal the three-dimensional atomic structure of netrin-1 as it bound to a docking molecule, called DCC (Deleted in Colorectal Carcinoma), on the axon of a neuron. The axon is the long, thin extension of a neuron that connects to other neurons or to muscle cells.
DCC in a receptor for netrin-1 and is currently believed by some to be a conditional tumour suppressor gene, meaning that it normally prevents cell growth when in the absence of netrin-1. DCC elimination is not believed to be a key genetic change in tumour formation, but one of many alterations that can promote existing tumour growth. DCC's possible role in migration of cancerous cells is in the process of being characterized. While recent results make it fairly likely that DCC is involved in the biology of several cancers, the extent of its involvement and the details of how it works are still being studied.
As connections between neurons are established -- in the developing brain and throughout life -- axons grow out from a neuron and extend through the brain until they reach the neuron they are connecting to. To choose its path, a growing axon senses and reacts to different molecules it encounters along the way. One of these molecules, netrin-1, posed an interesting puzzle: an axon can be both attracted to and repelled from this cue. The axon's behavior is determined by two types of receptors on its tip: DCC drives attraction, while UNC5 in combination with DCC drives repulsion.
"How netrin works at the molecular level has long been a puzzle in neuroscience field," said Wang, "We now provide structure evidences that reveal a novel mechanism of this important guidance cue molecule." The structure showed that netrin-1 binds not to one, but to two DCC molecules. And most surprisingly, it binds those two molecules in different ways.
"Normally a receptor and a signal are like lock-and-key, they have evolved to bind each other and are highly specific -- and that's what we see in one netrin site," said Meijers. "But the second binding site is a very unusual one, which is not specific for DCC."
Not all of the second binding site connects directly to a receptor. Instead, in a large portion of the binding interface, it requires small molecules that act as middle-men. These intermediary molecules seem to have a preference for UNC5, so if the axon has both UNC5 and DCC receptors, netrin-1 will bind to one copy of UNC5 via those molecules and the other copy of DCC at the DCC-specific site. This triggers a cascade of events inside the cell that ultimately drives the axon away from the source of netrin-1, author Yan Zhang's lab at Peking University found. The researchers surmised that, if an axon has only DCC receptors, each netrin-1 molecule binds two DCC molecules, which results in the axon being attracted to netrin-1. "By controlling whether or not UNC5 is present on its tip, an axon can switch from moving toward netrin to moving away from it, weaving through the brain to establish the right connection," said Zhang.