The functional annotation of genomes, construction of molecular networks and novel drug target identification, are important challenges that need to be addressed as a matter of great urgency1-4. Multiple complementary 'omics' approaches have provided clues as to the genetic risk factors and pathogenic mechanisms underlying numerous neurodegenerative diseases, but most findings still require functional validation5. For example, a recent genome wide association study for Parkinson's Disease (PD), identified many new loci as risk factors for the disease, but the underlying causative variant(s) or pathogenic mechanism is not known6, 7. As each associated region can contain several genes, the functional evaluation of each of the genes on phenotypes associated with the disease, using traditional cell biology techniques would take too long.
There is also a need to understand the molecular networks that link genetic mutations to the phenotypes they cause. It is expected that disease phenotypes are the result of multiple interactions that have been disrupted. Reconstruction of these networks using traditional molecular methods would be time consuming. Moreover, network predictions from independent studies of individual components, the reductionism approach, will probably underestimate the network complexity8. This underestimation could, in part, explain the low success rate of drug approval due to undesirable or toxic side effects. Gaining a network perspective of disease related pathways using HT/HC cellular screening approaches, and identifying key nodes within these pathways, could lead to the identification of targets that are more suited for therapeutic intervention.
High-throughput screening (HTS) is an ideal methodology to address these issues9-12. but traditional methods were one dimensional whole-well cell assays, that used simplistic readouts for complex biological processes. They were unable to simultaneously quantify the many phenotypes observed in neurodegenerative diseases such as axonal transport deficits or alterations in morphology properties13, 14. This approach could not be used to investigate the dynamic nature of cellular processes or pathogenic events that occur in a subset of cells. To quantify such features one has to move to multi-dimensional phenotypes termed high-content screening (HCS)4, 15-17. HCS is the cell-based quantification of several processes simultaneously, which provides a more detailed representation of the cellular response to various perturbations compared to HTS.
HCS has many advantages over HTS18, 19, but conducting a high-throughput (HT)-high-content (HC) screen in neuronal models is problematic due to high cost, environmental variation and human error. In order to detect cellular responses on a 'phenomics' scale using HC imaging one has to reduce variation and error, while increasing sensitivity and reproducibility.
Herein we describe a method to accurately and reliably conduct shRNA screens using automated cell culturing20 and HC imaging in neuronal cellular models. We describe how we have used this methodology to identify modulators for one particular protein, DJ1, which when mutated causes autosomal recessive parkinsonism21.
Combining the versatility of HC imaging with HT methods, it is possible to accurately quantify a plethora of phenotypes. This could subsequently be utilized to advance our understanding of the genome, the pathways involved in disease pathogenesis as well as identify potential therapeutic targets.