Retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) connect the eyes to the brain. They are essential for vertebrate vision and pathogenic targets in glaucoma. One therapeutic goal of vision scientists is to fully understand the factors required for RGC development, so these cells can be generated in vitro. The proneural basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) protein ATOH7 is expressed transiently in a subpopulation of early retinal progenitor cells, which give rise to the 7 major cell types of the retina but is only essential as a competence factor for RGC genesis. Loss of ATOH7 causes optic nerve aplasia and severe secondary retinovascular malformations. Cre-lox lineage data show only 55% of RGCs descend from Atoh7+ progenitors. What factors control genesis of the other 45% of RGCs? Why do only some Atoh7+ cells become RGCs? In humans with nonsyndromic congenital retinal nonattachment (NCRNA), a remote 5? conserved enhancer for ATOH7 is deleted, preventing development of RGCs and leading to total blindness. This DNA segment is obviously vital, but its exact role is unknown. In transgene reporter mice, this ?shadow? enhancer (SE) appears to be wholly redundant with the ?primary? (promoter-adjacent) enhancer (PE), despite is requirement in human NCRNA. In preliminary studies, we observed that Atoh7 SE deletion mice retain optic nerves. How do these dual enhancer elements coordinately regulate the rapid onset and offset of Atoh7 expression? Here, we propose to investigate functional differences between the human NCRNA and mouse SE deletion, to determine how specific DNA sequences control the level, timing and pattern of ATOH7 expression, to analyze ATOH7 transcriptional repression, and to identify cofactors influencing ATOH7+ cell fate decisions during RGC genesis. First, we will apply a multi-species approach to test the necessity and sufficiency of each ATOH7 regulatory element and determine precisely how each component contributes to the dynamic tissue and cellular expression pattern. Second, we will investigate mechanisms of ATOH7 transcriptional repression via Notch effector RPBJ and Kdm1a, using a high-throughput zebrafish screen, transgenic reporters and RNAseq. Third, we will use single-cell and pooled ATACseq and RNAseq methods to profile retinal progenitors in detail as they progress through stages of Atoh7 expression. These data will illuminate mechanisms controlling ATOH7 transcription, the onset of retinal neurogenesis and RGC fate specification; the action of binary enhancers generally; and the potential generation of RGCs in vitro for cell transplantation. My work toward these goals will be aided by the strong research and career development community at the University of California, Davis and my established team of mentors. Together, the proposed research and environment will provide a solid platform for my continued career development as a vision scientist ? learning new techniques and model systems, and interacting with a wide variety of scientists (short term goals), which will pave the way for me to become an independent academic researcher probing gene regulatory networks that control ATOH7, RGC fate and retinal histogenesis (long term goals).

Public Health Relevance

I will investigate the structure and function of the ATOH7 gene and its enhancers, along with other retinal ganglion cell (RGC) fate determinants, to better understand the pathogenic mechanisms for human nonsyndromic retinal nonattachment (NCRNA) disease. The project, which uses mutant or transgenic laboratory mice, zebrafish, Xenopus, and induced pluripotent stem cells will also advance the NEI goal to improve the efficiency of generating RGCs in vitro. By understanding the gene regulatory network influencing action of the RGC competence factor ATOH7, I will provide other researchers with important new information to achieve this objective.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Eye Institute (NEI)
Career Transition Award (K99)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZEY1)
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Agarwal, Neeraj
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University of California Davis
Anatomy/Cell Biology
Schools of Medicine
United States
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