Deafness is a major health problem. A major cause of deafness is defects in hair cells, the mechanosensory cells of the cochlea that convert sound induced vibrations into electrical signals to provide our sense of hearing. Mutations in the genes encoding protocadherin (PCDH15) and cadherin 23 (CDH23) cause hearing loss. Both genes are expressed in the hair bundles of the mechanosensory hair cells of the inner ear where they form heterophilic adhesion complexes that are important for hair bundle morphogenesis and mechanotransduction. Significantly, different mutation in both PCDH15 and CDH23 lead to different disease outcomes. While some mutations cause profound congenital deafness with retinal impairment (Usher Syndrome) others lead to recessive and progressive hearing loss without visual involvement. Gene-association studies also suggest a link of CDH23 polymorphisms with age- and noise-induce hearing loss. The mechanisms by which different mutations lead to distinct disease outcomes are poorly defined. We propose here to combine high-resolution structural studies with functional studies in hair cells to gain insights into the mechanisms by which PCDH15 and CDH23 regulate hair cell function and to define disease mechanisms. To achieve this goal, a laboratory with expertise in studying the biophysical and structural properties of cadherins and a laboratory dedicated to the study of auditory neuroscience have combined their efforts to achieve what either could not accomplish alone. Unlike previous studies that have focused on structural analysis of small monomeric fragments of CDH23 and PCDH15 expressed in bacteria, the team proposed to define the high- resolution structure of natively assembled PCDH15-CDH23 complexes using crystallography and cryo-EM. Structural data will be validated biochemically and by functional interrogation of mutant cadherins in the physiologically relevant mechanosensory hair cells paying attention to mutations associated with disease. We anticipate that our studies will provide the first high-resolution native structure of any protein complex important for mechanotransduction and provide mechanistic insights into its functional properties and pathophysiological mechanisms that are associated with different forms of hearing impairment.

Public Health Relevance

Sound waves are converted into neural signals in part by a protein structure called the tip-link. Mutations of tip-link proteins are associated with syndromic and progressive forms of deafness, yet the functional mechanism of the tip link is not clear. Here we propose to image the tip link at high resolution to understand its structure, and assess structure/function relationships to help elucidate mechanisms underlying disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Freeman, Nancy
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Columbia University (N.Y.)
Schools of Medicine
New York
United States
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Dionne, Gilman; Qiu, Xufeng; Rapp, Micah et al. (2018) Mechanotransduction by PCDH15 Relies on a Novel cis-Dimeric Architecture. Neuron 99:480-492.e5