Identifying functions of Down syndrome-related genes using RNA interference in C. elegans
Down syndrome is one of the most common genetic disorders, resulting in a range of neurological and neuromuscular disabilities. Although the presence of specific disabilities varies among individuals with Down syndrome, all individuals with Down syndrome are born with hypotonia (low muscle tone) and over half with congenital heart defects. Later in life, all individuals demonstrate intellectual disabilities to varying degrees, while many also develop early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. While the cause of Down syndrome is known to be a triplication of the 21st chromosome, it is unknown how this extraneous genetic material causes the development of these phenotypes. We have begun research into the biological basis of these disabilities using the tiny nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans as a genetic model. We used the technique RNA interference (RNAi), which allows us to study the in vivo function of genes by knocking down their expression one at a time in a living, behaving animal. We have used this technique to systematically study the in vivo function for genes involved in Down syndrome. To this end, we identified and knocked down C. elegans genes with sequence similarity to 67% of genes on the human 21st chromosome genes. We used these RNAi-treated worms to investigate the neuromuscular function of human chromosome 21 gene equivalents by assaying locomotion and pharyngeal pumping in a blinded screen. We used locomotion as a measure of neurological and neuromuscular function, while we used pharyngeal pumping as a model for cardiac function. We also performed an aldicarb screen to examine the role of some of these genes in the function of the synapse. Our experiments have provided valuable insight into the in vivo function of the vast majority of genes on the human 21st chromosome. This will be vital to identify genes that are potentially involved in eliciting Down syndrome-related phenotypes, laying the groundwork for further studies into the neurobiology of Down Syndrome.