Tag Archives: radial glia

Omar Khayyam and the embryology of the cerebral cortex

“The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on”.  Did Omar Khayyam realize he was talking about the embryology of the human cerebral cortex?  Although apparently far removed from chemistry, embryology most certainly is not.  The moving finger in this case is an enzyme modifying histone proteins.

In the last post (https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/marshall-mcluhan-rides-again/) I discussed how one site in the genome modified  the expression of a protein important in cancer (myc) even though it was 53,000 positions (nucleotides) away.  When stretched out into the usual B-form DNA shown in the text books this would stretch 1.7 microns or 17% of the way across the diameter of the usual spherical nucleus.  If our 3,200,000 nucleotide genome were chopped up into pieces this size some 60,000 segments would have to be crammed in.  Clearly DNA must be bent and wrapped around something, and that something is the nucleosome which is shaped like a fat disk.  Some 160 or so nucleotides are wrapped (twice) around the circumference of the nucleosome, giving a 10fold compaction in length.

The nucleosome is made of histone proteins, and here is where the moving finger comes in.  There are all sorts of chemical modifications of histones (some 130 different chemical modifications of histones are known).  Some are well known to most protein chemists, methylation of the amino groups of lysine, and the guanido groups of arginine, phosphorylation and acetylation  of serine and threonine.  Then there are the obscure small modifications –crotonylation, succinylation and malonylations.  Then there are the protein modifications, ubiquitination, sumoylation, rastafarination etc. etc.

What’s the point?  All these modifications determine what proteins and enzymes can and can’t react with a given stretch of DNA.  It goes by the name of histone code, and has little to do with the ordering of the nucleotides in DNA (the genetic code).  The particular set of histone modifications is heritable when cells divide.

Before going on, it’s worth considering just how miraculous our cerebral cortex is.  The latest estimate is that we have 80 billion neurons connected by 150 trillion synapses between them.  That’s far too much for 3.2 nucleotides to explicitly code for.

It turns out that almost all neurons in the cerebral cortex are born in a small area lining the ventricles.  They then migrate peripherally to form the 6 layered cerebral cortex.  The stem cell of the embryonic cortex is something called a radial glial cell which divides and divides each division producing 1 radial glial cell and 1 neuron which then goes on its merry way up to the cortex.

Which brings us (at last) to the moving finger, an enzyme called PRDM16 which puts a methyl group on two particular lysines  (#4 and #9) of histone H3.  PRDM16 is highly enriched in radial glia and nearly absent in mature neurons.  Knock PRDM16a out in radial glia, and the cortex is disorganized due to deficient neuronal migration.  Knock it out in newly formed neurons and the cortex is formed normally.  The moving finger having writ (in radial glia) moves on and is no longer needed (by mature neurons). “nor all thy Piety nor Wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line.  Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”.

You may read more about this fascinating work in Neuron vol. 98 pp. 867 – 869, 945 – 962 ’18


One reason our brain is 3 times that of a chimpanzee

Just based on the capacity of the skull, our brain is 3 – 4 times larger than that of our closest primate relative, the chimp. Most of the increase in size occurs in the cerebral cortex (the gray matter) just under the skull. Our cortex is thrown into folds because there is so much of it. Compare the picture of the mouse brain (smooth) and ours, wrinkled like a walnut http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=130442.

We now may have part of the explanation. A fascinating paper http://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6229/1465.full.pdf studied genetic differences between the progenitor cells from which the cortex arises (radial glia) in man and mouse. They found 56 protein coding genes expressed in our radial glia not present in the mouse (out of 20,000 or so).

One in particular called by the awful name ARHGAP11B is particularly fascinating. Why? Because it’s the product of a gene duplication of ARHGAP11A. When did this happen — after the human line split off from the chimp 6 million years ago. Chimps have no such duplication, just the original

Put ARHGAP11B into a developing mouse and its cortex expands so much it forms folds.

There has been all sorts of work on the genetic difference between man and chimp. There almost too many — [ Nature vol. 486 pp. 481 – 482 ’12 ] — some 20,000,000. Finding the relevant ones is the problem. ARHGAP11A is by far the best we’ve found to date.

Another fascinating story is the ‘language gene’ discovered in a family suffering from a speech and language disorder. It’s called FOXP2. Since the last common ancestor of humans and mice (70 megaYears ago) there have been only 3 changes in the 715 amino acids comprising the protein. 2 of them have occurred in the human lineage since it split with the chips 6 megaYears ago. So far no one has put the human FOXP2 gene into a chimp and got it to talk. For more details see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FOXP2

There is all sorts of fascinating molecular biology about what these two genes actually do in the cell, but that would make this post too long,. This is, in part, a chemistry blog and just what FOXP2 and ARHGAP11A actually do involves some beautiful and elegant chemistry — look up RhoGAP and Winged Helix transcription factors. Ferrari’s are beautiful cars, and become even more beautiful when you understand what’s going on under the hood. Chemistry gives you that for molecular, cellular and organismal biology.