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Aron, Liviu (2010): Genetic analysis of dopaminergic neuron survival: GDNF/Ret signaling and the Parkinson’s disease-associated gene DJ-1. Dissertation, LMU München: Fakultät für Biologie



Pathological changes in the dopaminergic system account for a number of devastating illnesses including schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder or the most well known Parkinson’s disease (PD). The nigrostriatal pathway is an important component of the dopaminergic (DA) system mediating voluntary movement and originates in the ventral midbrain from where substantia nigra pars compacta (SN) neurons send their axons to the dorsal striatum. Massive loss of SN neurons as seen in PD leads to postural imbalance, rigidity, tremor and bradykinesia, however, the precise mechanisms involved in the maintenance and the demise of SN neurons are poorly understood. Endogenous neurotrophic factors such as the Glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF; signaling via the Ret receptor tyrosine kinase) and Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF; signaling via the TrkB receptor tyrosine kinase) were reported to have protective and rescuing properties on DA neurons; however, their physiological roles in SN neurons remained unknown. Inactivation of the oxidative stress suppressor DJ-1 causes PD; remarkably, mice lacking DJ-1 function do not display overt SN degeneration, suggesting that additional DJ-1 interactors compensate for loss of DJ-1 function. To begin characterizing the cellular and molecular networks mediating SN neuron survival, I used mouse genetics to investigate the roles and the interaction between GDNF/BDNF-mediated trophic signaling and the DJ-1-mediated stress response in SN neurons. While mice lacking TrkB function specifically in SN neurons display a normal complement of SN neurons up to 24-months, loss of Ret function in DA neurons causes adult-onset and progressive SN degeneration, suggesting that GDNF/Ret signaling is required for long-term maintenance of SN neurons. I then generated and aged mice lacking Ret and DJ-1 and found remarkably that they display an enhanced SN degeneration relative to mice lacking Ret. Thus, DJ-1 promotes survival of Ret-deprived SN neurons. Interestingly, the survival requirement for Ret and DJ-1 is restricted to those SN neurons which express the ion channel GIRK2, project exclusively to the striatum and specifically degenerate in PD. This is the first in vivo evidence for a pro-survival role of DJ-1. To understand how DJ-1 interacts molecularly with Ret signaling, I performed epistasis analysis in Drosophila melanogaster. Although DJ-1 orthologs DJ-1A and DJ-1B are dispensable for fly development, the developmental defects induced by targeting constitutively active Ret to the retina were suppressed in a background of reduced DJ-1A/B function. Moreover, DJ-1A/B interacted genetically with Ras/ERK, but not PI3K/Akt signaling to regulate photoreceptor neuron development. Flies with reduced ERK activity and lacking DJ-1B function had more severe defects in photoreceptor neuron and wing development than flies with reduced ERK function. These observations establish, for the first time, a physiological role for DJ-1B in the intact Drosophila. Our findings suggest that the triple interaction between aging, trophic insufficiency and cellular stress may cause Parkinsonism. Because Ret and DJ-1 show convergence of their pro-survival activities, we predict that striatal delivery of GDNF might be most effective in PD patients carrying DJ-1 mutations. A better understanding of the molecular connections between trophic signaling, cellular stress and aging will accelerate the process of drug development in PD.