Our failure to understand how Agrin stimulates MuSK tyrosine phosphorylation is perhaps the most fundamental and glaring gap in our understanding of signaling at the neuromuscular synapse. We found that Lrp4, a member of the LDL receptor family, is essential for Agrin to stimulate MuSK tyrosine phosphorylation, suggesting that Lrp4 is a key component of an Agrin receptor complex and potentially the long-sought receptor for Agrin. The experiments described here are designed to determine whether Lrp4 binds Agrin and/or MuSK and how Lrp4 mediates Agrin responsiveness and synaptic differentiation. How MuSK, once activated, stimulates postsynaptic differentiation is similarly poorly understood. Dok-7 has recently been identified as an adaptor protein, which is recruited to tyrosine phosphorylated MuSK and which is essential for synaptic differentiation. Further, mutations in Dok-7 are a major cause of neuromuscular disorders, termed congenital myasthenic syndromes (CMS). The experiments described here are designed to identify and study the proteins that are recruited to Dok-7, which will be critical to understand how Dok-7 regulates synaptic differentiation and how mutations in Dok-7 cause CMS. The proposed studies are clinically relevant for several reasons. First, mutations in Dok-7 cause CMS, so understanding how Dok-7 works will contribute to a better understanding of this disease and may lead to novel therapeutic strategies. Second, mutations in genes that are downstream from Dok-7 may likewise cause CMS, so identifying the pathway downstream from Dok-7 is likewise important. Third, because mutations in other synaptic genes (e.g. AChR subunits, rapsyn, MuSK, AChE) also cause CMS, mutations that interfere with the function of Lrp4 selectively in muscle may also be responsible for CMS. Finally, because 20% of patients with myasthenia gravis are sero- negative for auto-antibodies to AChR or MuSK, these individuals presumably carry auto-antibodies to other synaptic proteins, possibly Lrp4.
The formation of neuromuscular synapses requires a complex exchange of signals between motor neurons and developing muscle fibers leading to the formation of a highly specialized postsynaptic membrane and a highly differentiated nerve terminal. The signals and mechanisms responsible for this complex differentiation program are poorly understood but require the neurally-derived ligand, Agrin, and the receptor tyrosine kinase, MuSK. Defects in this signaling pathway are responsible for a variety of congenital neuromuscular disorders and could underlie or contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS. The experiments described here are designed to determine how Lrp4 and Dok-7, two newly discovered components of this signaling pathway mediate Agrin responsiveness, lead to MuSK phosphorylation and stimulate synaptic differentiation.
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