Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

When MIT biology ­professor Frank Gertler bred mice missing a certain set of genes, he expected their brain cells to have faulty, misrouted nerve fibers. To his surprise, he saw mutant neurons that looked like fried eggs: the somas–or cell bodies–were intact, but the branchlike dendrites and long, skinny axons were missing.

The typical neuron in the cerebral cortex has a single axon, which relays information to other cells, and many shorter dendrites, which receive messages from other cells. The genetically altered mice in the study produced brain cells that were unable to extend any axons or dendrites or to connect with other neurons.

The family of proteins encoded by the three genes Gertler was investigating, known as Ena/Vasp proteins, turns out to play a critical role in the development of nerve fibers. Manipulating these proteins may one day help repair spinal-­column injuries and other damage caused by faulty cell-to-cell connections. “We think that the mechanisms we have begun to unravel might open the door to potential regenerative therapies for neurodegeneration or brain injuries,” Gertler says.

A cell’s shape is determined by its cytoskeleton–the internal pillars and girders that push against the cell membrane. To move and change shape, a cell must remodel its cytoskeleton. “It’s like the cell is reading traffic signals and trying to figure out where to go,” Gertler says. Ena/Vasp proteins are the navigators for nerve outgrowths called neurites, the precursors to axons and dendrites.

The proteins are located in the tips of a neurite’s filopodia–short extensions that receive environmental signals and translate them into instructions for the cell. Those instructions tell the cell either to continue extending the filopodia, by lengthening protein filaments, or to stop growth.

“This is one of the first studies that uncover the early steps in how a differentiated neuron begins to acquire its unique morphology,” Gertler says.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Credit: Adam Kwiatkowski, Doug Rubinson, Frank Gertler, Courtesy of Neuron

Tagged: MIT

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me