Biochemical and Functional Characterization of Semaphorin6A-PlexinA Signaling in Zebrafish Eye Development

Riley St. Clair, University of Vermont


During embryonic development, cells respond to extracellular signals to establish proper tissue organization. Semaphorins (Semas) are a large class of secreted and transmembrane proteins that signal through Plexin (Plxn) receptors to guide migrating cells to their correct position and thus play critical roles in the development of various tissues including the nervous and cardiovascular systems. We have previously shown that Sema6A-PlxnA2 signaling is essential for visual system development, as decreasing endogenous Sema6A or PlxnA2 in zebrafish results in decreased cohesion of the early eye field, impaired retinal lamination, and smaller eye size. However, the molecular mechanisms governing these phenotypes are unknown. This dissertation describes the elucidation of functionally-relevant mechanisms of Sema6A-PlxnA signaling during eye development using biochemical and proteomic approaches in cell culture systems and the zebrafish as an in vivo vertebrate model of eye development.

We first describe our investigations on the receptor-proximal mechanisms of Sema6A-PlxnA signaling. The Src-family tyrosine kinase Fyn was known to bind to and phosphorylate PlxnA receptors. However, the specific sites of phosphorylation and their function were unknown. Using mass spectrometry, we identified highly-conserved, Fyn-induced PlxnA tyrosine phosphorylation sites. Mutation of these tyrosines to phenylalanine nearly eliminated Fyn-dependent PlxnA phosphorylation. Furthermore, unlike mRNA encoding wild type human PlxnA2, mRNA encoding the tyrosine-to-phenylalanine mutant PlxnA2 could not rescue the smaller eye size phenotype caused by endogenous PlxnA2 knockdown in zebrafish. This suggests that Fyn-dependent PlxnA2 phosphorylation is critical for proper vertebrate eye development.

Next, we report the discovery and functional characterization of a naturally-released soluble ectodomain of Sema6A (sSema6A). We show that sSema6A production is increased by PKC activity. The identification of several PKC-dependent phosphorylation sites in the intracellular region of Sema6A suggests a mechanism for PKC-dependent release of sSema6A. Importantly, we show that sSema6A is functional as it promotes the cohesion of zebrafish early eye field explants. This is the first report of a soluble ectodomain of the Sema6 class and suggests that Sema6A can have regulated, long-range signaling capacity in addition to its canonical contact-mediated functions.

Finally, we present our findings characterizing the role in eye development of CRMP2, a downstream effector of Sema-Plxn signaling. CRMP2 is known to be critical for lamination of the cerebral cortex, leading us to hypothesize that CRMP2 could also be involved in the lamination of the retina. Using morpholino-based knockdown of endogenous zebrafish Crmp2, we show that Crmp2 has a critical function in visual system development. Crmp2 knockdown results in smaller eye size, impaired retinal lamination and a weakened optic tract.

Together, this dissertation describes important novel Sema6A-PlxnA signaling mechanisms and places them in the context of vertebrate eye development.