- Research article
- Open Access
Localization of BDNF mRNA with the Huntington's disease protein in rat brain
© Ma et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010
Received: 3 March 2010
Accepted: 27 May 2010
Published: 27 May 2010
Studies have implicated reduced levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the pathogenesis of Huntington's disease. Mutant huntingtin (Htt) protein was previously reported to decrease BDNF gene transcription and axonal transport of BDNF. We recently showed that wild-type Htt is associated with the Argonaute 2 microRNA-processing enzyme involved in gene silencing. In dendrites, Htt co-localizes with components of neuronal granules and mRNAs, indicating that it might play a role in post-transcriptional processing/transport of dendritic mRNAs.
We conducted imaging experiments in cultured cortical neurons to demonstrate the co-localization of endogenous Htt and BDNF mRNA in fixed cells, and co-trafficking of BDNF 3'UTR mRNA with endogenous and fluorescently tagged Htt in live neurons. We used an enhanced technique that combines FISH and immunofluorescent staining to co-localize BDNF mRNA with Htt, Ago2, CPEB and dynein in thick vibratome sections of the rat cortex.
In cultured neurons and sections of the rat cortex, we found BDNF mRNA associated with Htt and components of neuronal RNA granules, which are centers for regulating RNA transport and local translation. Htt may play a role in post-transcriptional transport/targeting of mRNA for BDNF, thus contributing to neurotrophic support and neuron survival.
Huntington's disease (HD) protein huntingtin (Htt) is a 350 kDa protein widely expressed at high levels in the hippocampus, cortex, cerebellum and striatum. Expansion of a triplet CAG repeat sequence in the 5' end of the Htt gene generates a protein with poly-glutamine repeat expansion, which is the cause of HD, an autosomal dominant neurodegenerative disorder characterized by uncontrolled movements, personality changes, dementia and death [reviewed in [1, 2]]. Although the pathogenesis of HD involves many processes, current evidence suggests significant dysfunction of neurons leading to progressive neuronal loss initially in the striatum. The ubiquitous expression of Htt does not provide an explanation for the selective striatal cell neurodegeneration at the onset of HD. Wild-type Htt has been implicated in many cellular functions including regulation of gene expression, endocytosis and microtubule-directed vesicular trafficking in axons and dendrites [reviewed in ]. Several studies have linked brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) with HD [reviewed in ], and hence, it is a possible therapeutic target for the disease [5, 6]. Transcription of BDNF is reported deregulated in HD, and transport of BDNF secretory vesicles necessary for neuronal survival requires a functional Htt [7, 8].
Recently, we have localized Htt with the small RNA-associated protein Argonaute 2 (Ago2) in processing (P)-bodies from somatic cells , and in neuronal RNA granules involved in transport and local translation of mRNA in dendrites . Because Ago2 has specific roles in RNA processing and gene silencing in restricted domains of the cell, the association with Htt in ribonucleoprotein particles (P-bodies and neuronal granules) provides a possible mechanism to account for the transport and translation of specific mRNAs. There are many potential genes that may be controlled at a post-transcriptional level by Ago2 and Htt. Because multiple isoforms of BDNF mRNA are transported to dendrites [11, 12], we hypothesized that Htt, in association with Ago2, might regulate BDNF mRNA processing and/or trafficking.
Huntingtin co-localizes with BDNF mRNA in cortical neurons
We recently reported that Htt associates with components of neuronal RNA granules and contributes to transport of mRNA in dendrites . Purification of endogenous Htt from mouse brain extracts demonstrated presence of Ago2 protein as well as brain-specific mRNAs such as IP3R1, CaMKIIα and MAP2. The BDNF gene encodes for multiple alternatively spliced transcripts that target different dendritic compartments . Significantly, the G196A mutation in the BDNF gene associated with neuropsychiatric disorders was found to block dendritic targeting by altering the binding site for the RNA binding protein translin which mediates dendritic targeting . Because BDNF levels are reduced in the brains of HD patients and HD mouse models, we sought to investigate whether Htt might be involved in the transport of BDNF mRNA through neuronal RNA granules.
Co-localization of Htt with BDNF-3'UTR mRNA in cortical neurons
Improved method to co-localize endogenous proteins with RNA in brain tissue
To study the co-localization of Htt and associated proteins with specific mRNAs in the brain, we used immunofluorescence staining (IFS) and FISH. Because of the problems in applying both FISH and IFS to thick vibratome-generated sections of rat brain tissue, and the limited sensitivity and high background of most methods, we employed a new approach using three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction on serial confocal images to visualize mRNA and proteins at high resolution. This 3D reconstruction avoids time-consuming and tedious tissue section processing and provides an accurate distribution of mRNA and proteins while retaining their status in situ.
No or weak hybridization signal
Check probe on DNA gel.
If necessary, synthesize new probe.
Probe concentration too low
Use more probe.
Use longer hybridization time.
Optimize perfusion and post-fixation conditions.
Ensure that solutions, containers and instruments are RNase-free.
Inadequate immunofluorescent detection of DIG-labeled probes
Titrate anti-hapten antibody.
Replace with new antibody.
Replace with more sensitive detection system (e.g. polyclonal anti-hapten).
Use brighter fluorescent dye conjugated antibodies (e.g. Dylight).
FISH signal detected on section surface only
Use longer incubation time or optimize detergent concentration.
Use thinner sections.
Use shorter probe or oligonucleotide probe.
Non-specific and/or high background staining
Probe not well purified
Optimize purification steps.
Hybridization conditions not optimal
Reduce time of hybridization.
Reduce probe amount.
Increase time and volume of post-hybridization washes.
Increase concentration of serum in blocking steps.
Use 4°C for incubation with secondary antibodies.
Use gentle shaking for hybridization, washing steps.
Avoid sections drying out.
Hybridization of probes to unwanted mRNAs
Use coding sequence only instead of entire plasmid or shorter sequence for probe generation.
Use sequence-specific probes.
Use oligonucleotide probes.
Immunofluorescent detection of DIG-labeled probes not optimal
Adjust concentration of anti-DIG and/or anti-chicken antibodies.
Spin antibody before use.
Use another detection system.
Visualization of Htt, Ago2 with BDNF mRNA
Visualization of Htt, CPEB1, dynein with BDNF mRNA
Additional file 2: Simultaneous visualization of BDNF mRNA with Htt and mRNA-binding protein CPEB1 in vibratome sections of rat brain cortex. BDNF mRNA, Htt and CPEB1 are shown in red, green and blue, respectively. Reconstruction method: ImageJ; optical slice interval: 0.5 μm; stack size: 16.0 μm. (AVI 2 MB)
Previous investigations indicated that Htt and dynein subunits directly interact [22, 23], and that Htt plays a critical role in the transport of intracellular vesicles and proteins . Although transport of BDNF protein occurs in an anterograde and retrograde manner , there is little information with regard to the localization of BDNF mRNA in structures associated with microtubule-based molecular motors. To confirm the interaction of Htt and dynein and extend the analysis to BDNF mRNA, we carried out nick-translation of the BDNF coding sequence DNA in order to detect BDNF mRNA in rat brain sections. The sections were subsequently probed with α-Htt and α-dynein (HC) antibodies.
Previous studies have indicated that Htt serves as a scaffold protein during the process of axonal transport of BDNF . Anterograde transport of BDNF from the cortex provides trophic support to striatal neurons. Lack of cortical BDNF gives rise to atrophy and death of striatal cells . In addition to axonal transport of BDNF, transcription of the BDNF gene was also reported deregulated in Huntington's disease [7, 8]. Reduced BDNF levels lead to a higher susceptibility of neurons to cell death in several neurodegenerative diseases including HD  and Alzheimer's disease . An emerging regulatory mechanism suggests that targeting of BDNF mRNA occurs in specific dendritic sites after changes in neuronal activity or high frequency stimulation . Although BDNF mRNA in cortical dendrites will not reach the striatum, changes in cortical BDNF levels could affect survival of striatal cells. Dendritic translation of BDNF mRNA can regulate morphological changes in spines . The rodent BDNF gene is transcribed by multiple promoters and generates at least 22 different transcripts [30, 31]. The function of each mRNA isoform has yet to be characterized. One hypothesis is that different BDNF mRNAs are directed to different subcellular locations and may be locally translated and released, providing a means to selectively regulate dendritic architecture in restricted domains .
We previously reported that Htt co-localizes with Ago2 in processing (P)-bodies of somatic cells and neuronal granules [9, 10] suggesting that Htt may play a role in RNA processing and/or gene silencing. To determine if Htt co-localizes with specific mRNAs in neuronal granules, which are structurally and functionally related to P-bodies , we utilized multicolor IFS and FISH techniques in concert with 3D co-localization to follow the expression of individual molecules in rat brain. We performed co-localization analysis on neurons and vibratome sections to study the interaction of proteins with BDNF mRNA. This is a number-based analysis; i.e., we analyze co-localization of BDNF mRNA granules and puncta staining of proteins. It differs from intensity-based analysis, which represents the total amount of mRNA molecules present in the granules. The discovery that BDNF mRNA is associated with Ago2 and Htt suggests a new mechanism for BDNF gene expression mediated through mRNA processing in neuronal granules.
Post-transcriptional control of BDNF mRNA in the brain likely plays a role in the production of BDNF protein . While little is known about BDNF mRNA processing in neuronal granules, mechanisms of dendritic trafficking of BDNF mRNA are starting to emerge. A recent study showed that the mutation G196A (Val66Met) in the BDNF coding sequence, which is linked to impaired episodic memory and depression in humans, disrupts a recognition site in BDNF mRNA for the RNA-binding protein translin . Reduced binding by translin at the 196A site was found to block trafficking of (Met)-BDNF mRNA in dendrites. Remarkably, it was previously reported that Met-carrier mice have reduced dendritic arborization and display more anxiety-like behavior similar to that of humans [33, 34]. Thus, impairment of BDNF mRNA sorting and processing is likely involved in the pathogenesis of specific neuronal diseases such as HD and other psychiatric disorders. Indeed, the results shown in the present study represent a first clue that normal Htt may function in post-transcriptional repression pathways of BDNF mRNAs through P-bodies/neuronal granules and its retrograde dynein-mediated transport in dendrites. Further studies are warranted to determine how mutant Htt affects BDNF mRNA trafficking and RNA processing.
Combined multicolor FISH and IFS represent a powerful way of visualizing the spatial relationship between mRNA and proteins in histological sections. In this study, several experimental conditions have been optimized in order to perform mRNA FISH on brain tissue sections. First, brain sections need to be well fixed so that the low copy target mRNAs are protected and retained in their native location. Second, the sections need be properly processed to improve permeability, enabling probes and antibodies to reach their target. Treatments with proteinase K, sodium borohydride, ethanol gradient, or methanol have been previously applied for preprocessing tissue sections for FISH [18, 35–37]; however, these steps are time-consuming and may have negative effects on signal detection. Third, to enhance the signal detection in tissue sections, methods such as tyramide signal amplification may be necessary [18, 19]. Indeed, a combination of FISH and IFS may be difficult because immunodetection signal is likely weaker following FISH.
Using a number of improvements that address these shortcomings, we were able to visualize at high resolution the co-localization of BDNF mRNA with Htt and Ago2 at a single neuron level. These results suggest that Htt may play a role in post-transcriptional transport/targeting of mRNA through association with neuronal RNA granules. The targeting/trafficking of mRNA is a complex and dynamic process. The RNA-containing granules contain multiple proteins including Htt, RNA-binding proteins, motor proteins, and microtubules. Assembly/disassembly of protein/protein and protein/RNA complexes likely occur through multiple signaling pathways. Therefore, it is difficult to know whether the observed small percentage of BDNF mRNA co-localizing with Ago2 and Htt suggests involvement of a labile component. We also demonstrated the co-localization of Htt and BDNF mRNA with dynein, a motor protein involved in retrograde transport of cargos including mRNA . We have also demonstrated that the 3'UTR of BDNF mRNA and Htt co-localize and co-traffic in cortical neurons. Together these findings implicate a role for Htt in maintaining neurotrophic support and neuron survival via delivery and processing of BDNF mRNA.
We report the co-localization of BDNF mRNA with Htt, Ago2, CPEB and dynein in cultured cortical neurons and the rat cortex. Our combined approach of IFS/FISH and co-localization analysis provides a powerful means to study protein-mRNA interaction in neuronal cells or tissues. We show that the 3'UTR of BDNF mRNA and Htt co-localize and co-traffic in cortical neurons. These results suggest that Htt may play a role in post-transcriptional transport/targeting of mRNA through association with neuronal RNA granules. The findings implicate a role for Htt in maintaining neurotrophic support and neuron survival via delivery and processing of BDNF mRNA.
Brain fractions were generated as described . Briefly, one flash frozen P15 Swiss Webster mouse brain was minced into a paste and homogenized on ice in a glass Dounce homogenizer in 2 ml of Buffer A (10 mM HEPES, pH 7.6; 1.5 mM MgCl2) containing protease inhibitors (leupeptin, pepstatin, aprotinin, PMSF, and sodium metabisulfite) and RNAse inhibitor (40 units RNAsin, Promega). The homogenate was incubated on ice for 10 minutes after which 1/10 volume of 10 × Buffer B (300 mM HEPES, pH 7.6; 1.4 M KCl, 30 mM MgCl2) was added. Homogenate was spun at 1,400 × g for 10 minutes at 4°C to pellet the P1 fraction. The P1 fractions were washed in 1 ml of 1 × Buffer B and spun as before. The combined supernatants from the 1,400 × g spin were spun for 20 minutes at 14,000 × g at 4°C to pellet the P2 fraction. The supernatant (S2) was spun for an additional 2 hours at 100,000 × g at 4°C to pellet the P3 fraction. Fraction P1 was resuspended in one-half the volume of total S3, fraction P2 was resuspended in same volume as total S3, and fraction P3 was resuspended in 1/10 volume of total S3. 50 mg of S3 and equivalent volumes of P1, P2, and P3 fractions were loaded onto a 7.5% SDS polyacrylamide gel for electrophoresis.
50 μg of S3 and equivalent volumes of P1, P2, and P3 fractions were loaded onto a 7.5% SDS polyacrylamide gel for electrophoresis and transferred to nitrocellulose membrane, blocked for 1 hour in 5% nonfat dry milk in TBST at room temperature, and incubated in a 1:1000 dilution of MAB2166 (Millipore) in TBST overnight at 4°C. IR Dye 800 conjugated goat anti-mouse secondary antibody was used at 1:10000. Blot was scanned on a LI-COR Odyssey infrared scanner (LI-COR, Lincoln, NE).
Preparation of nick-translated probes
DIG-labeled DNA probes were generated using DIG-Nick Translation Mix (Roche Applied Science) according to manufacturer's protocol. 1.0 μg RLTK plasmid DNA (Promega) containing BDNF 3'UTR only, or 1.0 μg of a mixture of plasmid DNA each (0.25 μg) containing exon2c, exon4, exon6, or exon8 of the BDNF gene linked to the protein coding sequence (exon9) of BDNF and fused with GFP at the 3' end . The latter probe mix was used to detect "BDNF mRNA" in the current study. RLTK plasmid without any insert was used as a control. After nick-translation, Illustra ProbeQuant™ G-50 Micro Columns (GE Healthcare) were used for probe purification. 1.0 μg template DNA yielded 50 μl of probe. Probes of 200-400 bp in length were used for hybridization.
Preparation of vibratome sections
Female wild-type Wistar rats (2 or 3 weeks old, Harlan Laboratories, Indianapolis, IN) were perfused transcardially with PBS (pH 7.4), followed by 4% paraformaldehyde (PFA, Electron Microscopy Sciences, Hatfield, PA) under deep anesthesia induced by i.p. injection of a mixture of ketamine (100 mg/kg) and xylazine (25 mg/kg). Brain tissues were extracted from the skull, post-fixed with 4% PFA/20% sucrose for at least two days at 4°C. All rats were maintained under veterinary supervision at New York University School of Medicine Animal Care Facility in accordance with the guidelines established by the NIH for the care of laboratory animals and all procedures approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. 100 μm vibratome sections were prepared with a Vibratome Series 1000 Classic (Vibratome Company, St. Louis, MO) and transferred to 24-well plates filled with DEPC-PBS.
Fluorescence in situ hybridization of mRNA
DEPC-treated water was used for preparation of PBS and other reagents. The sections were treated with 0.25% Triton X-100 in PBS overnight at 4°C and washed 3 times with PBS. After 20 minute rinsing in 1 × SSC, the sections were incubated for 2 hours at 37°C with 100 μl hybridization buffer [25% dextran sulfate, 30 μg/ml single stranded salmon sperm DNA (Sigma), 30 μg/ml yeast tRNA (Sigma), 0.4% bovine serum albumin (Jackson ImmunoResearch Laboratories), 20 mM ribonucleoside vanadyl complex (Sigma), 0.01 M sodium phosphate buffer (pH 7.0), 2 × SSC]. The sections were then hybridized for 12 hours at 37°C with 5 μl of nick-translated probe diluted in 100 μl hybridization buffer. After hybridization, sections were washed with 40% formamide/1 × SSC for 1 hour at 37°C with gentle shaking, followed by 3 × 30 minute washing with 1 × SSC with gentle shaking on an orbital shaker.
Detection of DIG-labeled probes and immunofluorescence staining
Antibodies used in the study
Isotype, Dilution used
digoxigenin conjugated with KLH
Immunology Consultants Laboratory, CDIG-65A
polyclonal IgY, 1:500
human huntingtin protein a.a. 181-810
monoclonal, IgG1κ, clone 1HU-4C8, 1:500
human Ago2 peptide KLMRSASFNTDPYVRE
Gift of Ramin Shiekhattar, The Wistar Institute
rat dynein heavy chain a.a. 4320-4644
Santa Cruz Biotechnology, sc-9115
polyclonal, IgG, 1:300
mouse CPEB1 peptide SMEGLRHHSPLMRNQKN
Gift of David Wells, Yale University
polyclonal, IgG, 1:1000
Alexa Fluor® 488 goat anti-mouse IgG
mouse IgG (H + L)
Cy3 goat anti-mouse IgG
mouse IgG (H + L)
Jackson ImmunoResearch, 115-166-003
polyclonal, F(ab')2 fragment, 1:500
DyLight 549 goat anti-chicken IgY (IgG)
chicken IgY (IgG) (H + L)
Jackson ImmunoResearch, 103-505-155
DyLight 649 goat anti-rabbit IgG
rabbit IgG (H + L)
Jackson ImmunoResearch, 111-495-144
Parameters and settings used for confocal microscopy
Excitation wavelength (nm)
Emission filter (nm)
Dylight 549, Cy3
HeNe1 (max. 29%)
HeNe2 (max. 44%)
Segmentation was performed using a modified version of the formerly described program . The principle of this approach is in the classification of each pixel into one of seven colors (red, green, blue, yellow, magenta, cyan and white) by choosing the minimal angular deviation between the RGB vector of a given pixel and seven classically defined edge vectors. White was defined as (255, 255, 255) in RGB color model. Briefly, background was subtracted from the image and color segmentation was performed using a program integrated in ImageJ platform. After segmentation, images in seven pseudo channels were changed to grayscale and assigned seven defined colors. Finally, the images were smoothed and processed in ImageJ to generate a final version of seven pseudo channels, each of which represents one target or co-localization of two or three targets.
(a) 3D reconstruction with LSM software
The 3D projection and reconstruction were performed with Projection function in the 3D View menu. Projection method: maximum; rotation: along y-axis; total projections: 64.
(b) 3D reconstruction with Image J
ImageJ 1.42 http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/ was obtained from the National Institutes of Health. Stacks of images from optical sections were exported to ImageJ as serial images, processed, and saved as TIFF image sequence. 3D projections were performed using image sequence, and the movies generated were saved as uncompressed AVI files. The settings for 3D projection were: rotation angle increment: 10; opacity: 0; surface depth-cueing: 100%; interior depth-cueing: 50%; projection methods: brightest point; interpolate: selected. The slice spacing was calculated using the scale relationship of x- and z-axis. For example, if a 90 μm × 90 μm image has a size of 512 × 512 pixels and optical section interval is 0.5 μm, the slice spacing is 2.84 pixels (512 × 0.5/90).
(c) Compression of movie files
Movie files were compressed with Virtual Dub (Version 188.8.131.52, http://www.virtualdub.org) and saved as AVI. Cinepak Codec by Radius was used for compression.
BDNF-3'UTR reporter plasmids
The MS2 binding sites of the bacteriophage MS2 protein were cloned downstream of the Renilla luciferase gene in pRL-TK vector (Promega). Full-length (2.85 kb), short (0.35 kb) or long (2.5 kb) 3'UTR sequence of the mouse BDNF gene was amplified by PCR of a genomic DNA clone (gift of Lino Tessarollo) and inserted downstream of the MS2 binding sites to generate the three BDNF-3'UTR reporter constructs.
Transfection of primary neurons
Rat cortical neurons were isolated and cultured as previously described . Neurons were fixed with 4% PFA in PBS for 20 minutes at room temperature. Rat cortical neurons of DIV5 were typically transfected with 1 μg total plasmid DNA with 1 μl of Lipofectamine 2000 (Invitrogen) in OptiMEM (Invitrogen) per 24 well as recommended by the manufacturer. Transfection of 0.5 μg NLS-MS2-Venus  and 0.5 μg of one of three BDNF 3'UTR constructs were used for visualization of BDNF mRNA in neurons. Before transfection, 50% of culture medium was removed and later used to replace the medium after 1-hour incubation with the transfection mixture. Neurons were fixed and immunostained 18-24 hours after transfection. Htt was detected by incubating cells with mouse α-Htt (Millipore), followed by Cy3-conjugated goat α-mouse IgG (Jackson ImmunoResearch Laboratories).
Live cell imaging
For imaging of BDNF mRNA in live cells, 0.33 μg of NLS-MS2-Venus, 0.33 μg of a BDNF 3'UTR plasmid and 0.33 μg mRFP-Htt480-17Q  were transfected per well in a 24-well plate. 18-24 hours after transfection, neurons were transferred to Lab-Tek 2-well chamber cover glass (Nalge Nunc International) for live cell imaging. Less laser power (3% for Argon laser and 10% for HeNe1) was used to avoid photobleaching and toxicity. Frame time was 15 seconds and frame interval 5.0 seconds. Images were acquired with a Plan-Neofluar 40 ×/1.3 oil-immersion objective lens. The images were exported and a movie file generated by ImageJ.
This work was supported in part by the Hereditary Disease Foundation (NT), grants from the CHDI Foundation (NT, MVC), and a Shared Instrumentation Grant from the NIH (S10 RR017970). We thank Ramin Shiekhattar for α-Ago2 antibody, David Wells for α-CPEB1 antibody, Hiroko Bannai for the NLS-MS2-Venus plasmid, Lino Tessarollo for genomic BDNF clone, Feng He for the segmentation program modification and Wayne Rasband for the ImageJ program.
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