Kinases and phosphatases that regulate neurite number versus branching versus extension are weakly correlated.The kinase family that most strongly enhances neurite growth is a family of non-protein kinases; sugar kinases related to NADK.Pathway analysis revealed that genes in several cancer pathways were highly active in enhancing neurite growth.
In neural development, neuronal precursors differentiate, migrate, extend long axons and dendrites, and finally establish connections with their targets. Clinical conditions such as spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, and Alzheimer's disease are often associated with a loss of axon and/or dendrite connectivity and treatment strategies would be enhanced by new therapies targeting cell intrinsic mechanisms of axon elongation and regeneration.
Phosphorylation controls most cellular processes, including the cell cycle, proliferation, metabolism, and apoptosis. Neuronal differentiation, including axon formation and elongation, is also regulated by a wide range of kinases and phosphatases. For example, the non-receptor tyrosine kinase Src is required for cell adhesion molecule-dependent neurite outgrowth. In addition to individual kinases and phosphatases, signaling pathways like the MAPK, growth factor signaling, PIP3, cytoskeletal, and calcium-dependent pathways have been shown to impinge on or control neuronal process development. Recent results have implicated GSK3 and PTEN as therapeutically relevant targets in axonal regeneration after injury. However, these and other experiments have studied only a small fraction of the total kinases and phosphatases in the genome. Because of recent advances in genomic knowledge, large-scale cDNA production, and high-throughput phenotypic analysis, it is now possible to take a more comprehensive approach to understanding the functions of kinases and phosphatases in neurons.
We performed a large, unbiased set of experiments to answer the question ‘what effect does the overexpression of genes encoding kinases, phosphatases, and related proteins have on neuronal morphology?' We used ‘high-content analysis' to obtain detailed results about the specific phenotypes of neurons. We studied embryonic rat hippocampal neurons because of their stereotypical development in vitro (Dotti et al, 1988) and their widespread use in studies of neuronal differentiation and signaling. We transfected over 700 clones encoding kinases and phosphatases into hippocampal neurons and analyzed the resulting changes in neuronal morphology.
Many known genes, including PP1a, ERK1, ErbB2, atypical PKC, Calcineurin, CaMK2, IGF1R, FGFR, GSK3, and PIK3 were observed to have significant effects on neurite outgrowth in our system, consistent with earlier findings in the literature.
We obtained quantitative data for many cellular and neuronal morphological parameters from each neuron imaged. These included nuclear morphology (nuclear area and Hoechst dye intensity), soma morphology (tubulin intensity, area, and shape), and numerous parameters of neurite morphology (e.g. tubulin intensity along the neurites, number of primary neurites, neurite length, number of branches, distance from the cell body to the branches, number of crossing points, width and area of the neurites, and longest neurite; Supplementary Figure 1). Other parameters were reported on a ‘per well' basis, including the percentage of transfected neurons in a condition, as well as the percentage of neurons initiating neurite growth. Data for each treatment were normalized to a control (pSport CAT) within the same experiment, then aggregated across replicate experiments.
Correlations among the 19 normalized parameters were analyzed for neurons transfected with all kinase and phosphatase clones (Figure 2). On the basis of this analysis, the primary variables that define the neurite morphology are primary neurite count, neurite average length, and average branches. Interestingly, primary neurite count was not well correlated with neurite length or branching. The Pearson correlation coefficient (r2) between the number of primary neurites and the average length of the neurites was 0.3, and between the number of primary neurites and average branching was 0.2. In contrast, the correlation coefficient of average branching with neurite average length was 0.7. The most likely explanation is that signaling mechanisms underlying the neurite number determination are different than those controlling length/branching of the neurites.
Related proteins are often involved in similar neuronal functions. For example, families of receptor protein tyrosine phosphatases are involved in motor axon extension and guidance in both Drosophila and in vertebrates, and a large family of Eph receptor tyrosine kinases regulates guidance of retinotectal projections, motor axons, and axons in the corpus callosum. We therefore asked whether families of related genes produced similar phenotypes when overexpressed in hippocampal neurons. Our set of genes covered 40% of the known protein kinases, and many of the non-protein kinases and phosphatases.
Gene families commonly exhibit redundant function. Redundant gene function has often been identified when two or more knockouts are required to produce a phenotype. Our technique allowed us to measure whether different members of gene families had similar (potentially redundant) or distinct effects on neuronal phenotype.
To determine whether groups of related genes affect neuronal morphology in similar ways, we used sequence alignment information to construct gene clusters (Figure 6). Genes were clustered at nine different thresholds of similarity (called ‘tiers'). The functional effect for a particular parameter was then averaged within each cluster of a given tier, and statistics were performed to determine the significance of the effect. We analyzed the results for three key neurite parameters (average neurite length, primary neurite count, and average branching). Genes that perturbed each of these phenotypes are grouped in Figure 6. Eight families, most with only a few genes, produced significant changes for one or two parameters. A diverse family of non-protein kinases had a positive effect on neurite outgrowth in three of the four parameters analyzed. This family of kinases consisted of a variety of enzymes, mostly sugar and lipid kinases. A similar analysis was performed using pathway cluster analysis with pathways from the KEGG database, rather than sequence homology. Interestingly, pathways involved in cancer cell proliferation potentiated neurite extension and branching.
Our studies have identified a large number of kinases and phosphatases, as well as structurally and functionally defined families of these proteins, that affect neuronal process formation in specific ways. We have provided an analytical methodology and new tools to analyze functional data, and have implicated genes with novel functions in neuronal development. Our studies are an important step towards the goal of a molecular description of the intrinsic control of axodendritic growth.
Development and regeneration of the nervous system requires the precise formation of axons and dendrites. Kinases and phosphatases are pervasive regulators of cellular function and have been implicated in controlling axodendritic development and regeneration. We undertook a gain-of-function analysis to determine the functions of kinases and phosphatases in the regulation of neuron morphology. Over 300 kinases and 124 esterases and phosphatases were studied by high-content analysis of rat hippocampal neurons. Proteins previously implicated in neurite growth, such as ERK1, GSK3, EphA8, FGFR, PI3K, PKC, p38, and PP1a, were confirmed to have effects in our functional assays. We also identified novel positive and negative neurite growth regulators. These include neuronal-developmentally regulated kinases such as the activin receptor, interferon regulatory factor 6 (IRF6) and neural leucine-rich repeat 1 (LRRN1). The protein kinase N2 (PKN2) and choline kinase α (CHKA) kinases, and the phosphatases PPEF2 and SMPD1, have little or no established functions in neuronal function, but were sufficient to promote neurite growth. In addition, pathway analysis revealed that members of signaling pathways involved in cancer progression and axis formation enhanced neurite outgrowth, whereas cytokine-related pathways significantly inhibited neurite formation.