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Visualizing protein synthesis in living neurons

May 25, 2001 -- Over the last two decades, neuroscientists have been building the argument, buttressed by data from many experiments, that dendrites -- the fine fibers that extend from neurons -- can synthesize proteins. If dendrites can synthesize proteins, they may also have the capacity to modulate the strength of connections between neurons and ultimately influence neural activities, including learning and memory.

In a research article published in the May 2001 issue of the journal Neuron, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Erin M. Schuman and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology describe a new technique that has allowed them to show that protein synthesis occurs in intact dendrites. The technique relies on a reporter molecule constructed by Schuman and colleagues, Girish Aakalu, Bryan Smith, Nhien Nguyen and Changan Jiang. When the molecule is introduced into neurons, it emits a telltale glow if protein synthesis is occurring.

The images produced by Schumans team demonstrate that protein synthesis takes place locally in the dendrites. "There was early evidence that protein-synthesis machinery was present in dendrites," said Schuman. "Those findings were intriguing because they implied that dendrites had the capacity to make their own proteins."

The idea that dendrites should be able to synthesize proteins made sense to Schuman and others because it was more economical and efficient. "Its like the difference between centralized and distributed freight shipping," she said. "With central shipping, you need a huge number of trucks that drive all over town, moving freight from a central factory. But with distributed shipping, you have multiple distribution centers that serve local populations, with far less transport involved."

Previous studies had indicated that fragments of dendrites had the capacity to synthesize proteins. Schuman and
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
24-May-2001


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