Many genetic manipulations are limited by difficulty in obtaining adequate levels of protein expression. Bioinformatic and experimental studies have identified nucleotide sequence features that may increase expression, however it is difficult to assess the relative influence of these features. Zebrafish embryos are rapidly injected with calibrated doses of mRNA, enabling the effects of multiple sequence changes to be compared in vivo. Using RNAseq and microarray data, we identified a set of genes that are highly expressed in zebrafish embryos and systematically analyzed for enrichment of sequence features correlated with levels of protein expression. We then tested enriched features by embryo microinjection and functional tests of multiple protein reporters. Codon selection, releasing factor recognition sequence and specific introns and 3′ untranslated regions each increased protein expression between 1.5- and 3-fold. These results suggested principles for increasing protein yield in zebrafish through biomolecular engineering. We implemented these principles for rational gene design in software for codon selection (CodonZ) and plasmid vectors incorporating the most active non-coding elements. Rational gene design thus significantly boosts expression in zebrafish, and a similar approach will likely elevate expression in other animal models.
Vertebrates respond to light with more than just their eyes. In this article we speculate on the intriguing possibility that a link remains between non-visual opsins and neurohormonal systems that control neuronal circuit formation and activity in mammals. Historically, the retina and pineal gland were considered the only significant light-sensing tissues in vertebrates. However, over the last century evidence has accumulated arguing that extra-ocular tissues in vertebrates influence behavior through non-image-forming photoreception. One such class of extra-ocular light detectors are the long mysterious deep brain photoreceptors. Here we review recent findings on the cellular identity and the function of deep brain photoreceptors controlling behavior and physiology in zebrafish, and discuss their implications.
behavior; deep brain photoreceptors; melanopsin; neurohormones; zebrafish
The zebrafish pineal gland (epiphysis) is a site of melatonin production, contains photoreceptor cells, and functions as a circadian clock pacemaker. Since it is located on the surface of the forebrain, it is accessible for manipulation and therefore is a useful model system to analyze pineal gland function and development. We previously analyzed the pineal transcriptome during development and showed that many genes exhibit a highly dynamic expression pattern in the pineal gland.
Among genes preferentially expressed in the zebrafish pineal gland, we identified a tissue-specific form of the unc119 gene family, unc119c, which is highly preferentially expressed in the pineal gland during day and night at all stages examined from embryo to adult. When expression of unc119c was inhibited, the formation of the habenular commissure (HC) was specifically compromised. The Unc119c interacting factors Arl3l1 and Arl3l2 as well as Wnt4a also proved indispensible for HC formation.
We suggest that Unc119c, together with Arl3l1/2, plays an important role in modulating Wnt4a production and secretion during HC formation in the forebrain of the zebrafish embryo.
Zebrafish; pineal gland; epiphysis; habenular commissure; unc119; wnt4
An essential step in muscle fiber maturation is the assembly of highly ordered myofibrils that are required for contraction. Much remains unknown about the molecular mechanisms governing the formation of the contractile apparatus. We identified an early embryonic motility mutant in zebrafish caused by integration of a transgene into the pseudophosphatase dual specificity phosphatase 27 (dusp27) gene. dusp27 mutants exhibit near complete paralysis at embryonic and larval stages, producing extremely low levels of spontaneous coiling movements and a greatly diminished touch response. Loss of dusp27 does not prevent somitogenesis but results in severe disorganization of the contractile apparatus in muscle fibers. Sarcomeric structures in mutants are almost entirely absent and only rare triads are observed. These findings are the first to implicate a functional role of dusp27 as a gene required for myofiber maturation and provide an animal model for analyzing the mechanisms governing myofibril assembly.
Zebrafish; dusp27; Motility; Myofibrillogenesis; Muscle
Most vertebrates process visual information using elaborately structured photosensory tissues including the eyes and pineal. However there is strong evidence that other tissues can detect and respond to photic stimuli [1, 2, 3]. Many reports suggest that photosensitive elements exist within the brain itself and influence physiology and behavior, however a long standing puzzle has been the identity of the neurons and photoreceptor molecules involved [4, 5]. We tested whether light cues influence behavior in zebrafish larvae through deep brain photosensors. We found that larvae lacking eyes and pineal perform a simple light-seeking behavior triggered by loss of illumination (`dark photokinesis'). Neuroanatomical considerations prompted us to test orthopedia (otpa) deficient fish which showed a profound reduction in dark photokinesis. Using targeted genetic ablations, we narrowed the photosensitive region to neurons in the preoptic area. Neurons in this region express several photoreceptive molecules, but expression of the melanopsin opn4a is selectively lost in otpa mutants, suggesting that opn4a mediates dark photokinesis. Our findings shed light on the identity and function of deep brain photoreceptors and suggest that otpa specifies an ancient population of sensory neurons that mediate behavioral responses to light.
We identified three zebrafish mutants with defects in biliary development. One of these mutants, pekin (pn), also demonstrated generalized hypopigmentation and other defects, including disruption of retinal cell layers, lack of zymogen granules in the pancreas, and dilated Golgi in intestinal epithelial cells. Bile duct cells in pn demonstrated an accumulation of electron dense bodies. We determined that the causative defect in pn was a splice site mutation in the atp6ap2 gene that leads to an inframe stop codon. atp6ap2 encodes a subunit of the vacuolar H+-ATPase (V-H+-ATPase), which modulates pH in intracellular compartments. The Atp6ap2 subunit has also been shown to function as an intracellular renin receptor that stimulates fibrogenesis. Here we show that mutants and morphants involving other V-H+-ATPase subunits also demonstrated developmental biliary defects, but did not demonstrate the inhibition of fibrogenic genes observed in pn. The defects in pn are reminiscent of those we and others have observed in class C VPS (vacuolar protein sorting) family mutants and morphants, and we report here that knockdown of atp6ap2 and vps33b had an additive negative effect on biliary development. Our findings suggest that pathways important in modulating intracompartmental pH lead to defects in digestive organ development, and support previous studies demonstrating the importance of intracellular sorting pathways in biliary development.
During waking behavior animals adapt their state of arousal in response to environmental pressures. Sensory processing is regulated in aroused states and several lines of evidence imply that this is mediated at least partly by the serotonergic system. However there is little information directly showing that serotonergic function is required for state-dependent modulation of sensory processing. Here we find that zebrafish larvae can maintain a short-term state of arousal during which neurons in the dorsal raphe modulate sensory responsiveness to behaviorally relevant visual cues. Following a brief exposure to water flow, larvae show elevated activity and heightened sensitivity to perceived motion. Calcium imaging of neuronal activity after flow revealed increased activity in serotonergic neurons of the dorsal raphe. Genetic ablation of these neurons abolished the increase in visual sensitivity during arousal without affecting baseline visual function or locomotor activity. We traced projections from the dorsal raphe to a major visual area, the optic tectum. Laser ablation of the tectum demonstrated that this structure, like the dorsal raphe, is required for improved visual sensitivity during arousal. These findings reveal that serotonergic neurons of the dorsal raphe have a state-dependent role in matching sensory responsiveness to behavioral context.
navigation; phototaxis; orienting; behavioral choice; optic tectum; motor; control; zebrafish
Transgenic technologies enable the manipulation and observation of circuits controlling behavior by permitting expression of genetically encoded reporter genes in neurons. Frequently though, neuronal expression is accompanied by transgene expression in non-neuronal tissues, which may preclude key experimental manipulations, including assessment of the contribution of neurons to behavior by ablation. To better restrict transgene expression to the nervous system in zebrafish larvae, we have used DNA sequences derived from the neuron-restrictive silencing element (NRSE). We find that one such sequence, REx2, when used in conjunction with several basal promoters, robustly suppresses transgene expression in non-neuronal tissues. Both in transient transgenic experiments and in stable enhancer trap lines, suppression is achieved without compromising expression within the nervous system. Furthermore, in REx2 enhancer trap lines non-neuronal expression can be de-repressed by knocking down expression of the NRSE binding protein RE1-silencing transcription factor (Rest). In one line, we show that the resulting pattern of reporter gene expression coincides with that of the adjacent endogenous gene, hapln3. We demonstrate that three common basal promoters are susceptible to the effects of the REx2 element, suggesting that this method may be useful for confining expression from many other promoters to the nervous system. This technique enables neural specific targeting of reporter genes and thus will facilitate the use of transgenic methods to manipulate circuit function in freely behaving larvae.
transgenesis; enhancer trap; ablation; NRSE; rest; zebrafish
Forward genetic screens in vertebrates are powerful tools to generate models relevant to human diseases, including neuropsychiatric disorders. Variability in phenotypic penetrance and expressivity is common in these disorders and behavioral mutant models, making their molecular-genetic mapping a formidable task. Using a ‘phenotyping by segregation’ strategy, we molecularly map the hypersensitive zebrafish houdini mutant despite its variable phenotypic penetrance, providing a generally applicable strategy to map zebrafish mutants with subtle phenotypes.
As in many fishes, amphibians and reptiles, the epithalamus of the zebrafish, Danio rerio, develops with pronounced left–right (L–R) asymmetry. For example, in more than 95 per cent of zebrafish larvae, the parapineal, an accessory to the pineal organ, forms on the left side of the brain and the adjacent left habenular nucleus is larger than the right. Disruption of Nodal signalling affects this bias, producing equal numbers of larvae with the parapineal on the left or the right side and corresponding habenular reversals. Pre-selection of live larvae using fluorescent transgenic reporters provides a useful substrate for studying the effects of neuroanatomical asymmetry on behaviour. Previous studies had suggested that epithalamic directionality is correlated with lateralized behaviours such as L–R eye preference. We find that the randomization of epithalamic asymmetry, through perturbation of the nodal-related gene southpaw, does not alter a variety of motor behaviours, including responses to lateralized stimuli. However, we discovered significant deficits in swimming initiation and in the total distance navigated by larvae with parapineal reversals. We discuss these findings with respect to previous studies and recent work linking the habenular region with control of the motivation/reward pathway of the vertebrate brain.
habenula; brain asymmetry; behaviour
One of the central questions in neuroscience is how refined patterns of connectivity in the brain generate and monitor behavior. Genetic mutations can influence neural circuits by disrupting differentiation or maintenance of component neuronal cells or by altering functional patterns of nervous system connectivity. Mutagenesis screens therefore have the potential to reveal not only the molecular underpinnings of brain development and function, but to illuminate the cellular basis of behavior. Practical considerations make the zebrafish an organism of choice for undertaking forward genetic analysis of behavior. The powerful array of experimental tools at the disposal of the zebrafish researcher makes it possible to link molecular function to neuronal properties that underlie behavior. This review focuses on specific challenges to isolating and analyzing behavioral mutants in zebrafish.
zebrafish; behavior; mutagenesis
The Roundabout (Robo) family of receptors and their Slit ligands play well-established roles in axonal guidance, including in humans where horizontal gaze palsy with progressive scoliosis (HGPPS) is caused by mutations in the robo3 gene. While significant progress has been made towards understanding the mechanism by which Robo receptors establish commissural projections in the central nervous system, less is known about how these projections contribute to neural circuits mediating behavior. Here we report cloning of the zebrafish behavioral mutant twitch twice and show that twitch twice encodes robo3. We demonstrate that in mutant hindbrains the axons of an identified pair of neurons, the Mauthner cells, fail to cross the midline. The Mauthner neurons are essential for the startle response, and in twitch twice/robo3 mutants misguidance of the Mauthner axons results in a unidirectional startle response. Moreover, we show that twitch twice mutants exhibit normal visual acuity but display defects in horizontal eye movements, suggesting a specific and critical role for twitch twice/robo3 in sensory guided behavior.
robo3; zebrafish; behavior; axon guidance; Mauthner cell; optokinetic response