The objective of the proposed research is to conduct a thorough single-cell and cell-compartment gene expression study through the application of high throughput genomic technologies to identify the genomic bases of neuronal identity, polarity and plasticity. Utilizing the well-studied gill withdrawal reflex memory circuit from the model organism Aplysia californica, our goal is to define systematically the molecular repertoire (genomic blueprint) of the neurites and individual synapses of the key neurons that make up this cellular ensemble. We will define the compartmental transcriptomes (the sets of mRNAs, miRNAs and other ncRNAs) within the components of the functional circuit (cells and synapses), which are reconstituted in vitro by co- culture of 2-4 of its best characterized cells (L7 motor neuron, sensory neuron, stimulatory and inhibitory interneurons). This fully operational neural circuit reconstructed in cell culture bears many important properties of the intact circuit, and has been used with great success to ascertain the molecular underpinnings of memory formation in Aplysia, numerous aspects of which are conserved within the animal kingdom, including in the human brain. The systems biology approach will be applied to reveal gene regulatory networks and their potential role in the establishment and maintenance of long-term memory using learned fear as an experimental paradigm, focusing on synaptic mechanisms of long-term facilitation (LTF) and depression (LTD). We will use this genomic and systems biology approach to explore the following three fundamental brain mechanisms: (1) the molecular basis of neuronal identity, by revealing those transcripts that are unique to or shared among these neurons or specialized synapses;(2) the molecular signals controlling cellular polarity and the formation of the precise pattern of interconnections which underlie behavior, in part directed by the distribution of mRNAs in the central and peripheral compartments of these cells;and (3) the molecular basis of synapse-specific neuronal plasticity and neuronal growth, with special attention paid to the mRNA repertoire within the individual synapses at the junctions between pairs of pre- and post-synaptic neurons. The combined approach will take advantage of an already established team of experts in genomics, bioengineering, neuroscience, and bioinformatics. Though these paradigms will be established in the large well-characterized neurons of Aplysia, the mechanisms revealed and the technologies developed will have a broad impact in the biology of any polarized cell type with asymmetric distribution of RNAs and proteins.
Using Aplysia, a model organism that has proved exemplary in the study of learned behaviors and memory formation, we will be able for the first time to study how genes are expressed in individual cell sub- compartments. The multi-component system analyses to be undertaken will be used to understand how neurons and synapses operate in the context of learning and memory and how the activities of thousands of genes are distributed and integrated within a single cell. The molecular and systems-level discoveries made will have a broad impact in biology and biomedical research, including but not limited to memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases.
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