Nerve Cells On The Go

Harvard Researchers Tie Axon Pathfinding to Cytoskeleton Research

Boston, MA--February 25, 1999--One of the hottest fields in cell biology aims to understand the molecules that drive the cytoskeleton, the gel-like inner scaffold that allows a cell to 'morph' into different shapes as it responds to important changes in its environment.

And one of the hottest fields in neurobiology aims to understand how the hand-shaped end of a growing neuron, called the growth cone, explores the territory it traverses on its way to its target tissue.

The twain now meet in two NIH-funded studies published in the February Neuron. In them, David Van Vactor, HMS assistant professor of cell biology, describes how his team found an uninterrupted chain of signaling events that neurons in fly embryos use to transmit outside information from the membrane all the way to the actin cytoskeleton.

In previous research, cytoskeleton researchers have worked from the bottom up, tracing their way backward from actin. They have found a bewildering number of partial connections but have not yet made the leap to the membrane receptor. Working from the top down, neuron guidance researchers traditionally study which external cues the growth cone encounters and which receptors it uses to recognize them. But this research has not yet completed the link to actin.

Van Vactor's work bridges that gap by describing the first continuous line of communication linking a receptor in a growth cone's membrane to actin, the final agent of change.

The cell's cytoskeleton is a continuously changing fabric of protein filaments underneath the cell membrane. Actin is one of its major components. Beyond giving a cell mechanical strength, the cytoskeleton is the actual executor of most biological events that require a change in a cell's shape or motility. Examples include the development of an organism with different types of cells arranged in

Contact: Peta Gillyatt
Harvard Medical School

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