Neural crest cells (NCCs) are vertebrate-specific cells that migrate from the developing neural tube and differentiate into multiple tissues including craniofacial structures and neurons and glia of the peripheral nervous system. A defining feature of NCCs is the epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) they undergo to delaminate from the neuroepithelium and begin migration. EMT is a dramatic process in which cells lose epithelial structure and undergo major changes in cell morphology and motility that allow cell migration and formation of new tissues. EMTs are critical for numerous developmental processes, and are also co-opted during pathological events, most notably carcinoma invasion and metastasis. However, the mechanisms regulating cellular changes during EMT in vivo remain poorly understood, largely because of a paucity of model systems in which cells undergoing EMT can be studied in their natural environment. We are developing zebrafish NCC EMT as a model to investigate EMT mechanisms in vivo. We have carried out high resolution live imaging of NCC behavior in intact embryos. We now propose to develop the tools to image the molecular activity and analyze the function of RhoGTPase during EMT in vivo.
Our specific aims are: 1) To image active Rho during NCC EMT in vivo. We will use a biosensor to image the spatiotemporal dynamics of active Rho in NCCs undergoing EMT in the intact zebrafish hindbrain. 2) To define specific downstream Rho effector pathways that control particular changes in cell motility and F-actin in vivo. We will inhibit ROCK and Dia signaling to test the hypothesis that these effectors differentially regulate changes in cell adhesions and protrusions that drive EMT. 3) We will screen upstream Rho regulators, GEFs and GAPs, to determine which have specific subcellular localization in NCCs, and which function to control precise spatiotemporal activation of Rho within a cell. Our ability to image activity of RhoGTPases, manipulate their function and examine effects on dynamic cell behaviors and F-actin will elucidate precise functions of RhoGTPases during EMT in vivo. Our experiments to investigate the specific downstream effectors and upstream GEFs and GAPs will allow us to begin defining molecular pathways that differentially control Rho and its functions in different parts of the cell. Understanding EMT regulatory mechanisms has high medical relevance as EMTs underlie multiple pathological processes. Our experiments thus have potential to inform therapies designed to treat diseases involving abnormal cell migration.

Public Health Relevance

EMTs are extremely important for tissue remodeling during embryonic development, and are also central events in several pathological processes, such as fibrosis, chronic inflammation and cancer progression and metastasis. Elucidation of the molecular mechanisms controlling EMT is critical for understanding these developmental and pathological events. Our experiments have potential to inform therapies designed to treat diseases involving abnormal cell migration.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Exploratory/Developmental Grants (R21)
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Development - 2 Study Section (DEV2)
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Morris, Jill A
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University of Wisconsin Madison
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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