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Researchers find new clues to nerve cell development

MADISON--Similar to an insect's antennae, filopodia are finger-like projections on the tips of developing nerve cells that extend out to detect environmental clues and help direct axons to their proper destinations. Until now, scientists didn't know what kind of signals filopodia sent back to the cell tip, called a growth cone, or how they controlled movement.

University of Wisconsin Medical School researchers have found that the ends of filopodia generate tiny bursts of calcium that travel back to the growth cone to stimulate movement in the right direction.

"These bursts, which usually occur at the very ends of the filopodia, are extremely brief-about a 300-millisecond pulse--which may explain why they were undetected in earlier studies," says lead scientist Timothy Gomez, an assistant professor of anatomy at University of Wisconsin Medical School. "Since many other types of cells have these finger-like projections, we believe that these brief calcium bursts may be a universal signaling mechanism for all motile, or moving, cells, including immune, epithelial and metastatic cells."

The study, conducted by Gomez while he was a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Nicholas Spitzer at University of California-San Diego, appears in the March 9 issue of Science.

In the developing nervous system, neurons in the brain, spinal cord and elsewhere in the body send out long axons, which in the mature nervous system transfer signals to a target cell. A growth cone is located at the tip of each embryonic axon, and later becomes a synapse, the communication connection between nerve cells.

Filopodia sprout from each growth cone and are in constant motion, in search of guidance cues deposited by supporting cells and secreted by target cells, which are often located a great distance from the neuron's cell body. As the filopodia help steer the growth cones to their target cells, axons are formed along the way.

Gomez and his colleagues studied frog sp
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Contact: Dian Land
dj.land@hosp.wisc.edu
608-263-9893
University of Wisconsin-Madison
7-Mar-2001


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