While genetic screens have identified many genes essential for neurite outgrowth, they have been limited in their ability to identify neural genes that also have earlier critical roles in the gastrula, or neural genes for which maternally contributed RNA compensates for gene mutations in the zygote. To address this, we developed methods to screen the Drosophila genome using RNA-interference (RNAi) on primary neural cells and present the results of the first full-genome RNAi screen in neurons. We used live-cell imaging and quantitative image analysis to characterize the morphological phenotypes of fluorescently labelled primary neurons and glia in response to RNAi-mediated gene knockdown. From the full genome screen, we focused our analysis on 104 evolutionarily conserved genes that when downregulated by RNAi, have morphological defects such as reduced axon extension, excessive branching, loss of fasciculation, and blebbing. To assist in the phenotypic analysis of the large data sets, we generated image analysis algorithms that could assess the statistical significance of the mutant phenotypes. The algorithms were essential for the analysis of the thousands of images generated by the screening process and will become a valuable tool for future genome-wide screens in primary neurons. Our analysis revealed unexpected, essential roles in neurite outgrowth for genes representing a wide range of functional categories including signalling molecules, enzymes, channels, receptors, and cytoskeletal proteins. We also found that genes known to be involved in protein and vesicle trafficking showed similar RNAi phenotypes. We confirmed phenotypes of the protein trafficking genes Sec61alpha and Ran GTPase using Drosophila embryo and mouse embryonic cerebral cortical neurons, respectively. Collectively, our results showed that RNAi phenotypes in primary neural culture can parallel in vivo phenotypes, and the screening technique can be used to identify many new genes that have important functions in the nervous system.
Cell-based high content screening (HCS) is becoming an important and increasingly favored approach in therapeutic drug discovery and functional genomics. In HCS, changes in cellular morphology and biomarker distributions provide an information-rich profile of cellular responses to experimental treatments such as small molecules or gene knockdown probes. One obstacle that currently exists with such cell-based assays is the availability of image processing algorithms that are capable of reliably and automatically analyzing large HCS image sets. HCS images of primary neuronal cell cultures are particularly challenging to analyze due to complex cellular morphology. Here we present a robust method for quantifying and statistically analyzing the morphology of neuronal cells in HCS images. The major advantages of our method over existing software lie in its capability to correct non-uniform illumination using the contrast-limited adaptive histogram equalization method; segment neuromeres using Gabor-wavelet texture analysis; and detect faint neurites by a novel phase-based neurite extraction algorithm that is invariant to changes in illumination and contrast and can accurately localize neurites. Our method was successfully applied to analyze a large HCS image set generated in a morphology screen for polyglutamine-mediated neuronal toxicity using primary neuronal cell cultures derived from embryos of a Drosophila Huntington's Disease (HD) model.
Using a Drosophila model of Alzheimer's disease (AD), we systematically evaluated 67 candidate genes based on AD-associated genomic loci (P < 10(-4)) from published human genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Genetic manipulation of 87 homologous fly genes was tested for modulation of neurotoxicity caused by human Tau, which forms neurofibrillary tangle pathology in AD. RNA interference (RNAi) targeting 9 genes enhanced Tau neurotoxicity, and in most cases reciprocal activation of gene expression suppressed Tau toxicity. Our screen implicates cindr, the fly ortholog of the human CD2AP AD susceptibility gene, as a modulator of Tau-mediated disease mechanisms. Importantly, we also identify the fly orthologs of FERMT2 and CELF1 as Tau modifiers, and these loci have been independently validated as AD susceptibility loci in the latest GWAS meta-analysis. Both CD2AP and FERMT2 have been previously implicated with roles in cell adhesion, and our screen additionally identifies a fly homolog of the human integrin adhesion receptors, ITGAM and ITGA9, as a modifier of Tau neurotoxicity. Our results highlight cell adhesion pathways as important in Tau toxicity and AD susceptibility and demonstrate the power of model organism genetic screens for the functional follow-up of human GWAS.
Protein aggregates are a common pathological feature of most neurodegenerative diseases (NDs). Understanding their formation and regulation will help clarify their controversial roles in disease pathogenesis. To date, there have been few systematic studies of aggregates formation in Drosophila, a model organism that has been applied extensively in modeling NDs and screening for toxicity modifiers. We generated transgenic fly lines that express enhanced-GFP-tagged mutant Huntingtin (Htt) fragments with different lengths of polyglutamine (polyQ) tract and showed that these Htt mutants develop protein aggregates in a polyQ-length- and age-dependent manner in Drosophila. To identify central regulators of protein aggregation, we further generated stable Drosophila cell lines expressing these Htt mutants and also established a cell-based quantitative assay that allows automated measurement of aggregates within cells. We then performed a genomewide RNA interference screen for regulators of mutant Htt aggregation and isolated 126 genes involved in diverse cellular processes. Interestingly, although our screen focused only on mutant Htt aggregation, several of the identified candidates were known previously as toxicity modifiers of NDs. Moreover, modulating the in vivo activity of hsp110 (CG6603) or tra1, two hits from the screen, affects neurodegeneration in a dose-dependent manner in a Drosophila model of Huntington's disease. Thus, other aggregates regulators isolated in our screen may identify additional genes involved in the protein-folding pathway and neurotoxicity.
To identify Huntington's Disease therapeutics, we conducted high-content small molecule and RNAi suppressor screens using a Drosophila primary neural culture Huntingtin model. Drosophila primary neurons offer a sensitive readout for neurotoxicty, as their neurites develop dysmorphic features in the presence of mutant polyglutamine-expanded Huntingtin compared to nonpathogenic Huntingtin. By tracking the subcellular distribution of mRFP-tagged pathogenic Huntingtin and assaying neurite branch morphology via live-imaging, we identified suppressors that could reduce Huntingtin aggregation and/or prevent the formation of dystrophic neurites. The custom algorithms we used to quantify neurite morphologies in complex cultures provide a useful tool for future high-content screening approaches focused on neurodegenerative disease models. Compounds previously found to be effective aggregation inhibitors in mammalian systems were also effective in Drosophila primary cultures, suggesting translational capacity between these models. However, we did not observe a direct correlation between the ability of a compound or gene knockdown to suppress aggregate formation and its ability to rescue dysmorphic neurites. Only a subset of aggregation inhibitors could revert dysmorphic cellular profiles. We identified lkb1, an upstream kinase in the mTOR/Insulin pathway, and four novel drugs, Camptothecin, OH-Camptothecin, 18β-Glycyrrhetinic acid, and Carbenoxolone, that were strong suppressors of mutant Huntingtin-induced neurotoxicity. Huntingtin neurotoxicity suppressors identified through our screen also restored viability in an in vivo Drosophila Huntington's Disease model, making them attractive candidates for further therapeutic evaluation.