A transgenic C.elegans worm, where the motor neurons are labeled with two fluorescent reporters (green and red). Motor neurons are located on the under side of the worm, positioned one after the other, and appear as green and red dots. The top three panels are fluorescent images, and the bottom panel shows the actual animal together with the fluorescently labeled motor neurons.
Neurobiologist Paschalis Kratsios, PhD, senior author of the new study published in eLife, wanted to understand how different types of neurons maintain their functions over the lifetime of an organism.
The DNA of an animal contains the instructions for creating every type of cell in its body. During development, the generation of different cell types (e.g., neurons, blood cells, muscle cells) depends on different sets of genes for each cell type to be expressed at the right time. But what determines which genes are switched on and which genes are turned off or ignored?
A new study by scientists at the University of Chicago in a tiny worm called C. elegans shows that, in motor neurons, a single protein coordinates the decision of which genes will be switched on and which genes will be turned off, determining the ultimate identity of motor neurons and what roles they will play. Once the neuron has developed into its final form, that same protein also regulates expression of the right molecules to keep it functioning properly.