Axon degeneration occurs after nervous system injury and during neurodegenerative diseases but very little is known about how injured or diseased axons destroy themselves. Recent work on the mouse Wallerian degeneration slow molecule (Wlds), which potently protects severed axons from degeneration, has revealed that axon degeneration is an active process of axon auto-destruction. Amazingly, Wlds can also suppress axon degeneration after chemical insult and delay disease onset in a number of mouse models of human neurodegenerative disease. Wlds is therefore a broadly neuroprotective molecule and understanding its molecular action is of paramount importance. We have developed the first Drosophila model to study injury-induced axon degeneration and shown that mouse Wlds can also potently suppress axon degeneration in severed Drosophila axons. These data indicate that the molecular mechanism that drive axon auto-destruction after injury are well-conserved in Drosophila and mammals, and open the door to powerful molecular-genetic approaches only available in Drosophila to study axon auto-destruction. In this proposal we will: (1) define the domains of the Wlds protein essential for it to protect axons;(2) determine whether Wlds interacts with the ubiquitin proteasome, NAD biosynthetic, or apoptotic machinery to block axon auto-destruction;and (3) perform the first ever forward genetic screens for mutation that block axon degeneration after injury or Wlds neuroprotective function. These studies represent the beginning of a long-term comprehensive effort to understand how axons destroy themselves after injury, and how Wlds impinges upon these pathways. We expect our findings to have a major impact on our understanding of axon degeneration after injury or during disease in humans, and the novel molecules we identify will be excellent candidates for therapeutic intervention in human axonopathies.

Public Health Relevance

After brain injury or during neurological disease neuronal fibers degenerate, connections in the brain are lost, and neural function is irreversibly compromised. We are studying the cellular action of an extraordinary molecule, WldS, which suppresses this loss of neuronal fibers. Our work will identify many new molecules that will be targets for treatment of patients after brain injury or during neurological disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Neurodifferentiation, Plasticity, and Regeneration Study Section (NDPR)
Program Officer
Owens, David F
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Massachusetts Medical School Worcester
Schools of Medicine
United States
Zip Code
Rooney, Timothy M; Freeman, Marc R (2014) Drosophila models of neuronal injury. ILAR J 54:291-5
Neukomm, Lukas J; Freeman, Marc R (2014) Diverse cellular and molecular modes of axon degeneration. Trends Cell Biol 24:515-23
Freeman, Marc R (2014) Signaling mechanisms regulating Wallerian degeneration. Curr Opin Neurobiol 27:224-31
Milde, Stefan; Fox, A Nicole; Freeman, Marc R et al. (2013) Deletions within its subcellular targeting domain enhance the axon protective capacity of Nmnat2 in vivo. Sci Rep 3:2567
Avery, Michelle A; Rooney, Timothy M; Pandya, Jignesh D et al. (2012) WldS prevents axon degeneration through increased mitochondrial flux and enhanced mitochondrial Ca2+ buffering. Curr Biol 22:596-600
Coleman, Michael P; Freeman, Marc R (2010) Wallerian degeneration, wld(s), and nmnat. Annu Rev Neurosci 33:245-67
Avery, Michelle A; Sheehan, Amy E; Kerr, Kimberly S et al. (2009) Wld S requires Nmnat1 enzymatic activity and N16-VCP interactions to suppress Wallerian degeneration. J Cell Biol 184:501-13