While genetic screens have identified many genes essential for neurite outgrowth, they have been limited in their ability to identify neural genes that also have earlier critical roles in the gastrula, or neural genes for which maternally contributed RNA compensates for gene mutations in the zygote. To address this, we developed methods to screen the Drosophila genome using RNA-interference (RNAi) on primary neural cells and present the results of the first full-genome RNAi screen in neurons. We used live-cell imaging and quantitative image analysis to characterize the morphological phenotypes of fluorescently labelled primary neurons and glia in response to RNAi-mediated gene knockdown. From the full genome screen, we focused our analysis on 104 evolutionarily conserved genes that when downregulated by RNAi, have morphological defects such as reduced axon extension, excessive branching, loss of fasciculation, and blebbing. To assist in the phenotypic analysis of the large data sets, we generated image analysis algorithms that could assess the statistical significance of the mutant phenotypes. The algorithms were essential for the analysis of the thousands of images generated by the screening process and will become a valuable tool for future genome-wide screens in primary neurons. Our analysis revealed unexpected, essential roles in neurite outgrowth for genes representing a wide range of functional categories including signalling molecules, enzymes, channels, receptors, and cytoskeletal proteins. We also found that genes known to be involved in protein and vesicle trafficking showed similar RNAi phenotypes. We confirmed phenotypes of the protein trafficking genes Sec61alpha and Ran GTPase using Drosophila embryo and mouse embryonic cerebral cortical neurons, respectively. Collectively, our results showed that RNAi phenotypes in primary neural culture can parallel in vivo phenotypes, and the screening technique can be used to identify many new genes that have important functions in the nervous system.
Development and function of the brain requires the coordinated action of thousands of genes, and currently we understand the roles of only a small fraction of them. Recent advances in genomics, such as the sequencing of entire genomes and the discovery of RNA-interference as a means of testing the effects of gene loss, have opened up the possibility to systematically analyze the function of all known and predicted genes in an organism. Until now, this type of functional genomics approach has not been applied to the study of very complex cells, such as the brain's neurons, on a full-genome scale. In this work, we developed techniques to test all genes, one by one in a rapid manner, for their potential role in neuronal development using neurons isolated from fruit fly embryos. These results yielded a global perspective of what types of genes are necessary for brain development; importantly, they show that a large variety of genes can be studied in this way.