Huntington's disease (HD) is caused by an abnormal expansion of a polyglutamine (polyQ) tract within the Huntingtin (Htt) protein. Recent studies have demonstrated that normal functions of Htt protein play a critical role in determining the final disease outcome. However, functional studies on wildtype Htt have been hampered by the early lethality of murine Htt mutant models and by the unusual large size of Htt protein. Despite the identification of large number of Htt interacting proteins (HIPs), the normal cellular roles of Htt remain poorly defined, which is becoming a major obstacle in studying the pathogenesis of HD and developing rational therapies to treat this devastating disease. Characterizing a Htt homolog in a simple, genetically tractable system will complement the established mammalian models. Unlike in C. elegans or yeast, a single Htt homolog exists in Drosophila (dhtt), allowing us to characterize this Htt family protein in this well-studied genetic model system. In preliminary studies, we have established a null-mutant for dhtt, the first mutant allele for a Htt family gene in an invertebrate model organism. We found that contrary to the results from an earlier RNAi-based study, dhtt is dispensable for Drosophila development, but removing endogenous dhtt can significantly accelerate the neurodegenerative phenotypes associated with a Drosophila model of polyQ-expanded Htt toxicity, supporting that normal function of Htt is important for HD pathogenesis;Furthermore, dhtt is required for maintaining the mobility and long-term survival of adult animals, and its absence affects axonal terminal complexity in the adult brain. These studies allow us to use the powerful genetic system and abundant experimental tools in Drosophila to carry out more detailed characterization of the dhtt null mutant and perform systematic evaluation of potential functional interactions between dhtt and HIPs homologues. Outcome of this research will provide critical insights into the normal function of Htt and ultimately the mechanisms underlying HD. In this application, we propose the following Specific Aims: (1) Characterize dhtt-associated phenotypes by ultrastructural and gene expression analyses, and use established in vivo assays in Drosophila to directly test proposed cellular roles of Htt in axonal vesicle transport and endocytosis;(2) Use a genome-tagging approach to establish a versatile toolbox for in vivo analysis of dHtt protein, and perform deletion study to map the functional domains in dHtt protein;(3) Assess the physiological relevance of mammalian HIPs by testing genetic interactions between their Drosophila homologues and dhtt, and use the Tandem Affinity Purification (TAP)-based approach to directly isolate Drosophila HIPs.

Public Health Relevance

The increasing prevalence of age-related neurodegenerative disorders, including Huntington's disease (HD), is becoming a mounting challenge to the well being of modern society. HD is a devastative brain degenerative disorder that affects at least 35,000 people in the U.S. alone, with another half a million at risk. Currently there is no preventive method or cure against HD. Recent studies suggest that alterations in the normal functions of disease protein Huntingtin play a critical role in the disease pathogenesis, and an effective therapeutic approach against HD might be to protect the normal activity of wildtype Huntingtin. Our research focuses on defining the normal functions of Huntingtin by studying its homologue in Drosophila, a simpler but well-studied and powerful genetic model system. We expect that the outcome of our research will contribute to our understanding of normal Huntingtin functions, which will not only help to uncover the molecular events underlying HD pathogenesis, but also to find effective prevention and treatments against this dreadful brain disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
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Cellular and Molecular Biology of Neurodegeneration Study Section (CMND)
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Sutherland, Margaret L
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University of Texas Health Science Center Houston
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Rui, Yan-Ning; Xu, Zhen; Patel, Bindi et al. (2015) Huntingtin functions as a scaffold for selective macroautophagy. Nat Cell Biol 17:262-75
Xu, Zhen; Tito, Antonio Joel; Rui, Yan-Ning et al. (2015) Studying polyglutamine diseases in Drosophila. Exp Neurol 274:25-41