Transposable elements, known colloquially as ?jumping genes,? constitute approximately 45% of the human genome. Cells utilize epigenetic defenses to limit transposable element jumping, including formation of silencing heterochromatin and generation of piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), small RNAs that facilitate clearance of transposable element transcripts. Transposable element activation has recently been identified as a key mediator of neuronal death in tauopathies, a group of neurodegenerative disorders that are pathologically defined by deposits of tau protein in the brain. Using genetic approaches in Drosophila melanogaster models of tauopathy, a causal relationship was established between pathogenic tau-induced heterochromatin decondensation and piwi/piRNA depletion, active transposable element mobilization, and neurodegeneration. Transposable element activation responds to pharmacological inhibition, as 3TC, an FDA-approved, water- soluble nucleoside analog inhibitor of reverse transcriptase, suppresses transposable element mobilization and neuronal death in tau transgenic Drosophila. Transcripts of the human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) class of transposable elements, among others, were found to be elevated in postmortem brain tissue from human Alzheimer?s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy, a ?primary? tauopathy. Taken together, these studies identify heterochromatin decondensation, piwi/piRNA depletion and consequent transposable element activation as a novel, conserved, pharmacologically targetable, mechanistic driver of neurodegeneration in tauopathy. To advance toward our long-term goal of developing mechanism-based therapies for the treatment of human tauopathies, the core objectives of the current proposal are to 1) Test the hypothesis that transposable element causes neuroinflammation in tauopathy, 2) Test the hypothesis that transposable element activation occurs in mouse models of tauopathy, and 3) Test the hypothesis that transposable element activation occurs in neurons of human tauopathy. To address issues of causality, test hypotheses in brains of aged animals with functional neuronal networks, and determine relevance to human disease, we combine studies in Drosophila, mouse models of tauopathy, and postmortem human Alzheimer?s disease brain tissue. Successful completion of these studies will set the stage for future development of nucleoside analog reverse transcriptase inhibitors as a tauopathy therapeutic.

Public Health Relevance

Transposable element activation has recently been identified as a novel, pharmacologically targetable, mechanism driving tau-induced neuronal death. The overall goal of our proposal is to deepen our mechanistic understanding of how transposable element activation induces neurotoxicity, to extend our studies to mouse models of tauopathy and to determine the extent of transposable element activation and mobilization in human tauopathy. Our research program utilizes a multisystem approach to understand tau-induced transposable element activation and will provide rationale for future development of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors for the treatment of human tauopathy.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Multi-Year Funded Research Project Grant (RF1)
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Cellular and Molecular Biology of Neurodegeneration Study Section (CMND)
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Mcgavern, Linda
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University of Texas Health Science Center
Anatomy/Cell Biology
Schools of Medicine
San Antonio
United States
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