Visualizing Endogenous Synaptic Proteins in Living Neurons

The recently published method is based on the generation of disulfide-free “intrabodies”, a structure from the 10th fibronectin type III domain known as FingRs. These affinity molecules were fused to GFP for direct fluorescence miscroscopy. The FingRs do not need di-sulfite bonds and are therefore better folders in mammalian cells. Specifically, a library was screened with in vitro display to identify FingRs that bind two synaptic proteins, Gephyrin and PSD95. After the initial selection, the researchers from USC secondarily screened binders using a cellular localization assay to identify potential FingRs that bind at high affinity in an intracellular environment. As it turned out, only 10-20% of the original positive clones bind well inside the cells, suggesting this type of further screening was a critical step.

The expression of intrabody is transcriptionally regulated by the target protein through a ZFN-repressor fusion. This transcriptional control system matches the expression of the intrabody to that of the target protein regardless of the target’s expression level. This design virtually eliminates unbound FingR, resulting in very low background that allows unobstructed visualization of the target proteins. As result, the FingRs presented in this study enabled live cell visualization of excitatory and inhibitory synapses, and apparently without affecting neuronal function.

Technically, the reason to use in vitro mRNA display was required by the need to use a large library (>10exp12, beyond the limit of the more commonly used phase display) to find good binders. A similar visualization system can be established using more potent affinity domains such as the VHH single-domain antibodies that have only one, sometimes dispensable, di-sulfite bond. The VHH domain nanobodies can be more easily isolated from camelid animals. Another improvement to the visualization system can be made by using stronger, superresolution-ready FPs such as mNeonGreen or mMaple to enable single molecule imaging, which is particularly interesting for studying synapses and applied to the BRAIN initiative.

Gross et al. Neuron, June 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23791193

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