GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Approval Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



Department of Neurobiology; Tzumin Lee Lab

First Thesis Advisor

Tzumin Lee


Dendrites and axons, Dscam isoforms


Drosophila Proteins; Neurons; Microtubule-Associated Proteins; Gene Targeting; Protein Isoforms; RNA Interference; Academic Dissertations


Neurons exhibit highly polarized structures, including two morphologically and functionally distinct domains, axons and dendrites. Dendrites and axons receive versus send information, and proper execution of each requires different sets of molecules. Differential distribution of membrane proteins in distinct neuronal compartments plays essential roles in neuronal functions. The major goal of my doctoral thesis was to study the molecular mechanisms that govern the differential distribution of membrane proteins in neurons, using the Drosophilalarval mushroom body (MB) as a model system.

My work was initiated by an observation of differential distribution of distinct Dscam isoforms in neurons. Dscam stands for Down Syndrome Cell Adhesion Molecule, which is a Drosophila homolog of human DSCAM. According to genomic analysis, DrosophilaDscam gene can generate more than 38,000 isoforms through alternative splicing in its exons 4, 6, 9 and 17. All Dscam isoforms share similar domain structures, with 10 immunoglobulin domains and 6 fibronectin type III repeats in the ectodomain, a single transmembrane domain and a cytoplasmic endodomain. There are two alternative exons in exon 17 (17.1 and 17.2), which encodes Dscam’s transmembrane domain. Interestingly, in ectopic expression, Dscam isoforms carrying exon 17.1 (Dscam[TM1]) can be preferentially localized to dendrites and cell bodies, while Dscam isoforms carrying exon 17.2 (Dscam[TM2]) are distributed throughout the entire neuron including axons and dendrites.

To unravel the mechanisms involved in the differential distribution of Dscam[TM1] versus Dscam[TM2], I conducted a mosaic genetic screening to identify the possible factors affecting dendritic distribution of Dscam[TM1], established an in vivoTARGET system to better distinguish the differential distribution of Dscam, identified the axonal and dendritic targeting motifs of Dscam molecules and further showed that Dscam’s differential roles in dendrites versus axons are correlated with its localization.

Several mutants affecting dendritic distribution of Dscam[TM1] have been identified using a MARCM genetic screen. Three of these mutants (Dlis1, Dmn and p24) are components of the dynein/dynactin complex. Silencing of other dynein/dynactin subunits and blocking dynein function with a dominant-negative Glued mutant also resulted in mislocalization of Dscam[TM1] from dendrites to axons. However, microtubule polarity in the mutant axons was maintained. Taken together, this was the first demonstration that the dynein/dynactin complex is involved in the polarized distribution of membrane proteins in neurons. To further examine how dynein/dynactin is involved in the dendritic distribution of Dscam[TM1], I compromised dynenin/dynactin function with dominant-negative Glued and transiently induced Dscam[TM1] expression. The results suggested that dynein/dynactin may not be directly involved in the targeting of newly synthesized Dscam[TM1] to dendrites. Instead, it plays a role in maintaining dendritic restriction of Dscam[TM1]. Notably, dynein/dynactin dysfunction did not alter distribution of another dendritic transmembrane protein Rdl (Resistant to Dieldrin), supporting involvement of diverse mechanisms in distributing distinct molecules to the dendritic membrane.

To identify the targeting motifs of Dscam, I incorporated the TARGET (Temporal and regional gene expression targeting) system into mushroom body (MB) neurons, and this allowed the demonstration of the differential distribution of Dscam[TM1] and Dscam[TM2] with more clarity than conventional overexpression techniques. Using the TARGET system, I identified an axonal targeting motif located in the cytoplasmic juxtamemebrane domain of Dscam[TM2]. This axonal targeting motif is dominant over the dendritic targeting motif located in Dscam’s ectodomain. Scanning alanine mutagenesis demonstrated that two amino acids in the axonal targeting motif were essential for Dscam’s axonal distribution. Interestingly, swapping the cytoplasmic juxtamembrane portions between TM1 and TM2 not only reversed TM1’s and TM2’s differential distribution patterns but also their functional properties in dendrites versus axons.

My thesis research also involved studying endodomain diversity of Dscam isoforms. Besides the diversity originally found in the ectodomain and transmembrane domain of Dscam, my colleagues and I further demonstrated the existence of four additional endodomain variants. These four variants are generated by skipping or retaining exon 19 or exon 23 through independent alternative splicing. Interestingly, different Dscam endodomain isoforms are expressed at different developmental stages and in different areas of the nervous system. Through isoform-specific RNA interference, we showed the differential involvement of distinct Dscam endodomains in specific neuronal morphogenetic processes. Analysis of the primary sequence of the Dscam endodomain indicated that endodomain variants may confer activation of different signaling pathways and functional roles in neuronal morphogenesis.

In Summary, my thesis work identified and characterized several previously unknown mechanisms related to the differential distribution of membrane proteins in neurons. I showed that there may be a dynein/dynactin-independent mechanism for selective transport of dendritic membrane proteins to dendrites. Second, dynein/dynactin plays a maintenance role in dendritic restriction of Dscam[TM1]. Third, different membrane proteins may require distinct combinations of mechanisms to be properly targeted and maintained in certain neuronal compartments. Further analysis of the mutants indentified from my genetic screen will definitely help to resolve the missing pieces of the puzzle. These findings provide novel mechanistic insight into the differential distribution of membrane proteins in polarized neurons.

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