Current research:

Chemical synapses are special cell-cell junctions which facilitate the transmission of neural signal within neurons or from a neuron to target cells. The synaptic proteins which orchestrate this mechanism have specific localizations within the synaptic active zone, dysfunction within which obviously causes disruptions in the neuronal circuits. For example abnormal location of certain proteins has been indicated in neurodegenerative diseases making it important to study synaptic protein localization.

Our current work involves the RNA binding proteins Fused in Sarcoma (FUS) and trans active response DNA-binding protein 43 (TDP-43) which are known to be involved in the pathogenesis of the neurodegenerative disorders amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Published projects:

→ Stress induced TDP-43 mobility loss independent of stress granules

TAR DNA binding protein 43 (TDP-43) is closely related to the pathogenesis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and translocates to stress granules (SGs). The role of SGs as aggregation-promoting “crucibles” for TDP-43, however, is still under debate. We analyzed TDP-43 mobility and localization under different stress and recovery conditions using live cell single-molecule tracking and super-resolution microscopy. Besides reduced mobility within SGs, a stress induced decrease of TDP-43 mobility in the cytoplasm and the nucleus was observed. Stress removal led to a recovery of TDP-43 mobility, which strongly depended on the stress duration. ‘Stimulated-emission depletion microscopy’ (STED) and ‘tracking and localization microscopy’ (TALM) revealed not only TDP-43 substructures within stress granules but also numerous patches of slow TDP-43 species throughout the cytoplasm. This work provides insights into the aggregation of TDP-43 in living cells and provide evidence suggesting that TDP-43 oligomerization and aggregation takes place in the cytoplasm separate from SGs.

→ Single-molecule tracking (SMT) and localization of SRF and MRTF transcription factors during neuronal stimulation and differentiation

In cells, proteins encoded by the same gene do not all behave uniformly but engage in functional subpopulations induced by spatial or temporal segregation. While conventional microscopy has limitations in revealing such spatial and temporal diversity, single-molecule tracking (SMT) microscopy circumvented this problem and allows for high-resolution imaging and quantification of dynamic single-molecule properties. Particularly in the nucleus, SMT has identified specific DNA residence times of transcription factors (TFs), DNA-bound TF fractions and positions of transcriptional hot-spots upon cell stimulation. By contrast to cell stimulation, SMT has not been employed to follow dynamic TF changes along stages of cell differentiation. Herein, we analysed the serum response factor (SRF), a TF involved in the differentiation of many cell types to study nuclear single-molecule dynamics in neuronal differentiation. Our data in living mouse hippocampal neurons show dynamic changes in SRF DNA residence time and SRF DNA-bound fraction between the stages of adhesion, neurite growth and neurite differentiation in axon and dendrites. Using TALM (tracking and localization microscopy), we identified nuclear positions of SRF clusters and observed changes in their numbers and size during differentiation. Furthermore, we show that the SRF cofactor MRTF-A (myocardin-related TF or MKL1) responds to cell activation by enhancing the long-bound DNA fraction. Finally, a first SMT colocalization study of two proteins was performed in living cells showing enhanced SRF/MRTF-A colocalization upon stimulation. In summary, SMT revealed modulation of dynamic TF properties during cell stimulation and differentiation.

→ Super-Resolution Microscopy Reveals Presynaptic Localization of the ALS/FTD Related Protein FUS in Hippocampal Neurons

Fused in Sarcoma (FUS) is a multifunctional RNA-/DNA-binding protein, which is involved in the pathogenesis of the neurodegenerative disorders amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). A common hallmark of these disorders is the abnormal accumulation of mutated FUS protein in the cytoplasm. Under normal conditions FUS is confined to the nuclear compartment, in neurons, however, additional somatodendritic localization can be observed. In this study, we carefully analyzed the subcellular localization of endogenous FUS at synaptic sites of hippocampal neurons which are among the most affected cell types in FTD with FUS pathology. We could confirm a strong nuclear localization of FUS as well as its prominent and widespread neuronal expression throughout the adult and developing rat brain, particularly in the hippocampus, the cerebellum and the outer layers of the cortex. Intriguingly, FUS was also consistently observed at synaptic sites as detected by neuronal subcellular fractionation as well as by immunolabeling. To define a pre- and/or postsynaptic localization of FUS, we employed super-resolution fluorescence localization microscopy. FUS was found to be localized within the axon terminal in close proximity to the presynaptic vesicle protein Synaptophysin1 and adjacent to the active zone protein Bassoon, but well separated from the postsynaptic protein PSD-95. Having shown the presynaptic localization of FUS in the nervous system, a novel extranuclear role of FUS at neuronal contact sites has to be considered. Since there is growing evidence that local presynaptic translation might also be an important mechanism for plasticity, FUS – like the fragile X mental retardation protein FMRP – might act as one of the presynaptic RNA-binding proteins regulating this machinery. Our observation of presynaptic FUS should foster further investigations to determine its role in neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and FTD.
doi: 10.3389/fncel.2015.00496