Science Seen: Worms give a clue to how the nervous system stays organized

nervous system tiling
Courtesy Candice Yip

To the eye, nervous systems look like a tangled mess of neurons and their tree-like branches known as dendrites, but it’s really organized chaos. How the system finds order has intrigued but eluded scientists. In the worm C. elegans, Max Heiman, PhD and graduate student Candice Yip found an elegant system to help explain how neurons each maintain their own space.

Normally, worms have just one neuron of a certain type on either side of their bodies. Yip did a “forward genetic screen” — mutating genes at random to find factors important for neuron wiring. One mutation caused the worm to grow not one set of neurons but five. By engineering the neurons to make a color-changing signal — as shown above — Yip showed that these extra neurons didn’t overlap with each other, but instead carved out discrete territories — a phenomenon known as tiling. How?

Acting on a hunch, Yip and Heiman, of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Genetics and Genomics, showed that C. elegans, faced with an increase in neurons, pressed a molecule called netrin into service to enforce boundaries between them. Netrin is better known for helping nerve fibers navigate to their destinations. When Yip took netrin out of action, the dendrites from the five neurons crossed the invisible borders and grew entangled.

The findings, published today in Cell Reports, could provide insight into neuropsychiatric diseases, believes Heiman, also part of Boston Children’s F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center. “It’s fundamental to neuropsychiatric disease to make sure brain wiring goes right,” he says. “This is also story about how new features evolve, and how you can form something as complicated as a nervous system. There are pathways that bring everything into order.”

Read more in this feature from Harvard Medical School and learn more about Heiman’s research.