Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



Department of Neurobiology; Freeman Lab

First Thesis Advisor

Marc R. Freeman, PhD


Nerve Tissue Proteins, Neuroprotective Agents, Axons, Wallerian Degeneration, Mitochondria, Drosophila, Drosophila Proteins


A common feature of many neuropathies is axon degeneration. While the reasons for degeneration differ greatly, the process of degeneration itself is similar in most cases. Axon degeneration after axotomy is termed ‘Wallerian degeneration,’ whereby injured axons rapidly fragment and disappear after a short period of latency (Waller, 1850). Wallerian degeneration was thought to be a passive process until the discovery of the Wallerian degeneration slow (Wlds) mouse mutant. In these mice, axons survive and function for weeks after nerve transection. Furthermore, when the full-length protein is inserted into mouse models of disease with an axon degeneration phenotype (such as progressive motor neuronopathy), Wlds is able to delay disease onset (for a review, see Coleman, 2005). Wlds has been cloned and was found to be a fusion event of two neighboring genes: Ube4b, which encodes an ubiquitinating enzyme, and NMNAT-1 (nicotinamide mononucleotide adenylyltransferase-1), which encodes a key factor in NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) biosynthesis, joined by a 54 nucleotide linker span (Mack et al., 2001).

To address the role of Wlds domains in axon protection and to characterize the subcellular localization of Wlds in neurons, our lab developed a novel method to study Wallerian degeneration in Drosophila in vivo (MacDonald et al., 2006). Using this method, we have discovered that mouse Wlds can also protect Drosophila axons for weeks after acute injury, indicating that the molecular mechanisms of Wallerian degeneration are well conserved between mouse and Drosophila. This observation allows us to use an easily manipulated genetic model to move the Wlds field forward; we can readily identify what Wlds domains give the greatest protection after injury and where in the neuron protection occurs. In chapter two of this thesis, I identify the minimal domains of Wlds that are needed for protection of severed Drosophila axons: the first 16 amino acids of Ube4b fused to Nmnat1. Although Nmnat1 and Wlds are nuclear proteins, we find evidence of a non-nuclear role in axonal protection in that a mitochondrial protein, Nmnat3, protects axons as well as Wlds.

In chapter 3, I further explore a role for mitochondria in Wlds-mediated severed axon protection and find the first cell biological changes seen in a Wlds-expressing neuron. The mitochondria of Wlds- and Nmnat3-expressing neurons are more motile before injury. We find this motility is necessary for protection as suppressing the motility with miro heterozygous alleles suppresses Wldsmediated axon protection. We also find that Wlds- and Nmnat3- expressing neurons show a decrease in calcium fluorescent reporter, gCaMP3, signal after axotomy. We propose a model whereby Wlds, through production of NAD in the mitochondria, leads to an increase in calcium buffering capacity, which would decrease the amount of calcium in the cytosol, allowing for more motile mitochondria. In the case of injury, the high calcium signal is buffered more quickly and so cannot signal for the axon to die.

Finally, in chapter 4 of my thesis, I identify a gene in an EMS-based forward genetic screen which can suppress Wallerian degeneration. This mutant is a loss of function, which, for the first time, definitively demonstrates that Wallerian degeneration is an active process. The mammalian homologue of the gene encodes a mitochondrial protein, which in light of the rest of the work in this thesis, highlights the importance of mitochondria in neuronal health and disease.

In conclusion, the work presented in this thesis highlights a role for mitochondria in both Wlds-mediated axon protection and Wallerian degeneration itself. I identified the first cell biological changes seen in Wlds-expressing neurons and show that at least one of these is necessary for its protection of severed axons. I also helped find the first Wallerian degeneration loss-of-function mutant, showing Wallerian degeneration is an active process, mediated by a molecularly distinct axonal degeneration pathway. The future of the axon degeneration field should focus on the mitochondria as a potential therapeutic target.



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