. A Drosophila model of ALS: human ALS-associated mutation in VAP33A suggests a dominant negative mechanism. PLoS One. 2008;3(6):e2334. PubMed.


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  1. The identification of a gene mutation associated with a human disease can pave the way for the generation of genetically modified animals as experimental models of the human condition. Three papers in the last six months have reported how Drosophila may be used to model the human motor neuron disease ALS8, by the expression of the mutated human VAPB gene or the homologous Drosophila protein (1-3). An earlier report from Chai et.al. demonstrated that both the human wild-type and ALS8 mutant forms of VAPB could rescue the phenotype of dVAP-deficient flies (1). Ratnaparkhi et. al. have now reported that the mutant form of the Drosophila protein is unable to rescue a VAPB deficiency as fully as the wild-type protein and, moreover, can suppress the activity of the wild-type protein. This interesting property is also well demonstrated with a thoracic bristle phenotype assay. Both groups employed the GAL4/UAS system to express wild-type and ALS8 mutant forms of dVAP in different tissues. One obvious potential cause for the differences seen is that the expression levels of the respective proteins are different. Neither paper presents any quantitative data, and in the supplementary material provided by Ratnaparkhi et al., the single immunoblot indicates a very modest level of overexpression in just a single genotype. In addition, the human protein and Drosophila mutant proteins may not be fully functionally equivalent. Currently, most evidence seems to support the hypothesis that the ALS8 mutation has reduced activity and acts in a dominant-negative fashion. However, in addition to the evidence provided by Chai et al., there is some indication that the vertebrate VAPBP56S may also exhibit a gain of function. Thus, elevating levels of wild-type VAPB can inhibit transcription regulated by ATF6, whereas the mutant VAPBP56S has a greater inhibitory affect. In contrast, reduction of VAPB levels enhances AT6 dependent transcription (4).

    The genetic link between dVAP and the BMP signaling system is extremely interesting, and clearly supported by the data. However, since VAP proteins in other systems have been shown to influence membrane trafficking, it will be important to determine the specificity of any VAP-mediated effect on membrane associated signaling systems(5-7). Also, some of the experiments rely on quantitative fluorescence microscopy that is technically very demanding, and is most compelling when done relative to a co-stained control signal rather than between samples.

    The reports from these groups are very significant since they clearly demonstrate the fact that phenotypes associated with the ALS8 mutation can be studied in Drosophila. The elegant and powerful genetic tools available in this organism can now be used to examine the molecular details of motor neuron degeneration and to screen for potential therapeutic compounds.


    . hVAPB, the causative gene of a heterogeneous group of motor neuron diseases in humans, is functionally interchangeable with its Drosophila homologue DVAP-33A at the neuromuscular junction. Hum Mol Genet. 2008 Jan 15;17(2):266-80. PubMed.

    . A Drosophila model of ALS: human ALS-associated mutation in VAP33A suggests a dominant negative mechanism. PLoS One. 2008;3(6):e2334. PubMed.

    . The amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 8 protein VAPB is cleaved, secreted, and acts as a ligand for Eph receptors. Cell. 2008 Jun 13;133(6):963-77. PubMed.

    . VAPB interacts with and modulates the activity of ATF6. Hum Mol Genet. 2008 Jun 1;17(11):1517-26. PubMed.

    . A functional role for VAP-33 in insulin-stimulated GLUT4 traffic. Traffic. 2000 Jun;1(6):512-21. PubMed.

    . A VAMP-binding protein from Aplysia required for neurotransmitter release. Science. 1995 Sep 15;269(5230):1580-3. PubMed.

    . ERG30, a VAP-33-related protein, functions in protein transport mediated by COPI vesicles. J Cell Biol. 1999 Jul 26;146(2):301-11. PubMed.

  2. VAPs (VAMP/synaptobrevin associated proteins) are evolutionarily conserved proteins comprising an amino-terminal domain with significant homology to the major sperm proteins (MSPs), a central coiled-coil domain, and a membrane anchor at the carboxy-terminal domain. MSPs are the most abundant proteins in the amoeboid nematode sperm, where they perform both cytoskeletal and signaling functions. In C. elegans, MSPs signal by antagonizing ephrin/Eph receptor pathway to promote oocyte meiotic maturation, ovarian sheath cell contraction, and oocyte microtubule reorganization. In 2004, Nishimura et al. reported a mutation substituting a conserved proline with a serine in a Brazilian family affected by a heterogenous group of motor neuron diseases ranging from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to atypical ALS and spinal muscular atrophy (1). In Drosophila, dVAP modulates number and size of boutons at neuromuscular junctions (2). Loss of function in dVAP disrupts microtubule cytoskeleton and causes an increase in miniature excitatory post-synaptic potentials that correlates with an increase in post-synaptic glutamate receptor clustering. It has also been shown that hVAPB, the causative gene of ALS8, rescues the lethality and the neuromuscular junction phenotype associated with loss of DVAP, clearly indicating that the fly protein and human VAP perform homologous functions (3).

    Recently, reports from two independent labs (Tsuda et al. and Ratnaparkhi et al.) have provided new and exciting insight on the normal function of VAP proteins and their possible role in the pathogenesis of VAP-induced ALS. Comments on these papers can be summarized as follows.

    The paper by Tsuda et al. reports that VAP proteins are cleaved, and an N-terminal fragment of a size compatible with the size of the MSP domain is secreted and binds to the Eph receptors. The pathogenic allele induces the accumulation of the mutant and the wild-type (wt) protein into the ER and a failure to secrete the cleaved MSP domain. Non cell-autonomous effects of the mutant and wt proteins have been reported both at the level of the Drosophila nervous system and the nematode reproductive system. The ability of dVAP to be cleaved and secreted has been shown with an elegant experiment in which the expression of dVAP has been driven in a subset of cells in the wing imaginal discs. A diffusion of dVAP MSP beyond the protein expressing cells was observed. However, there is no direct evidence that this process of cleavage and secretion of VAP proteins is occurring in neurons, in muscles, or in any other tissue that would be more relevant to the human disease.

    The ability of the pathogenic allele to induce the formation of aggregates has been previously reported in cell culture (1,4,5) and Drosophila model systems (3). Tsuda and colleagues report that expression of the mutant protein in a null background induces the formation of detergent-insoluble aggregates. Despite the mutant allele being inherited in a dominant manner in humans, these data lead to the important conclusion that the wild-type protein is not necessary for the formation of aggregates. However, an intriguing question arises: how can the presence of these aggregates be reconciled with the ability of the mutant protein to rescue the phenotypes associated with null mutations in dVAP as shown by three independent studies (3, Ratnaparkhi et al., Tsuda et al.). Are these aggregates different from the ones observed when the mutant protein is expressed in the presence of the wt protein?

    Other outstanding questions will need to be addressed: which is the protease or proteases responsible for the cleavage? Is the secretion of the MSP domain of VAP proteins occurring through an unconventional mechanism as already proposed for the MSP proteins in C. elegans? Which is the subcellular compartment in which the cleavage occurs?

    The paper by Ratnaparkhi et al. focuses on another important aspect, which is the determination of the disease mechanism. In humans, the pathogenic mutation is inherited in a dominant manner. Dominant mutations are due to a gain of function (hypermorphs and neomorphs), dominant-negative interactions (antimorphs) or haplo-insufficiency. Understanding the patho-mechanism of the disease is important as it can indicate new possible strategies for therapeutic interventions. Several lines of evidence support a possible dominant-negative effect of the pathogenic allele. The formation of aggregates, the depletion of the wild-type protein from its normal localization (3,4,5), and the sequestration of the wt protein in the aggregates clearly suggest a dominant-negative effect (4). Moreover, the fact that the pathogenic allele acts as a dominant-negative can be proven if the overexpression of the mutant protein in the presence of the wt protein leads to a phenotype similar to the loss-of-function mutation. Indeed, it has been reported that transgenic expression of the mutant protein induces a reduction in number of boutons (3), a disruption of the presynaptic cytoskeleton (Ratnaparkhi et al.) and a reduction in miniature excitatory post-synaptic potentials (Tsuda et al.). Ratnaparkhi et al. attempt to further support this statement by performing a systematic analysis of mutant phenotypes in different functional contexts. They compared the effect of overexpressing the wt protein with the overexpression of the mutant protein in transgenic lines expressing comparable amounts of transgenes. The expression levels of the proteins were estimated only for the full-length VAP. Although the mutant allele impairs the secretion of the MSP domain, the cleaved product is still produced as shown in several Western blots reported by Tsuda et al. The same Western blots suggest that the levels of the full-length protein and the cleaved MSP domain are not stoichiometrically similar; therefore, restricting the analysis to the expression levels of the full-length protein may be misleading. A cleaved, non-secreted MSP domain could still be responsible for the intracellular, cell-autonomous effects of the protein.

    Although there are several lines of evidence supporting a possible dominant-negative effect, there is other evidence suggesting different mechanisms for the disease. Mutant VAP proteins still retain some functional properties of the wt protein such as the ability to self-oligomerize (3,4) and the ability to rescue, at least in part, the mutant phenotype due to the loss of the endogenous protein. The mutant allele has also acquired new functional properties that are not shared by the normal version of the protein such as the propensity to form aggregates and the “floating active zones” phenotype reported by Ratnaparkhi et al. In one report it has also been shown that the mutant protein has an increased ability of inhibiting the activity of ATF6, a transcription factor involved in UPR (6).

    We propose that the mutant allele may cause the disease by a combination of mechanisms that include dominant-negative interactions and toxic effects due to gain of new functions. Although a lot still remains to be done, studies published over the last six months have convincingly shown that the variety of genetic tools available in Drosophila can now be exploited to foster our understanding of the patho-mechanisms responsible for motor neuron diseases in humans.

    View all comments by Giuseppa Pennetta
  3. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is an age-dependent, degenerative disorder of motor neurons that typically develops in the sixth decade and is uniformly fatal, usually within five years. About 10 percent of ALS cases are familial; 20 percent of these are caused by mutations in the gene encoding copper/zinc superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1). More recently, it has been shown that mutations in the TDP-43 gene are also causative for familial ALS (1-3). The VAPB P56S mutation was originally observed in a large Brazilian family of Portuguese descent that displayed a pattern of dominantly inherited ALS/motor neuron disease across four generations (4). Subsequent studies identified the mutation in at least seven different families, all of Portuguese-Brazilian origin, each displaying a different clinical course ranging from late-onset spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) to typical and atypical ALS (4). Our previous work identified only a single case of a VAPB mutation (P56S) in a screen of 80 familial ALS samples, demonstrating that VAPB mutations are extremely rare (5). As such, why is it important to study a mutation which is only responsible for a small percentage of ALS cases?

    One reason is due to the fact that from a clinical point of view, familial and sporadic ALS cases are virtually identical. As such, it is not unreasonable to postulate that although ALS may be caused by different genetic factors, they all may lead to common sets of pathways that eventually result in the ALS phenotype. Thus, a high level of importance should be placed on understanding the common features of all known ALS genes since they may shed light on these pathways. Therefore, even though VAPB mutations are indeed rare, characterizing their effects may provide insight on how cases of ALS develop overall.

    In both of the papers presented (6,7), the authors have each developed a Drosophila model of ALS which expresses mutant VAPB. The use of these models will undoubtedly be beneficial in future experiments to further decipher the ALS phenotype. Of great significance, though, is that each study observes in vivo that mutant VAPB is capable of inducing intracellular aggregates. This work reinforces previously published observation that in vitro expression of mutant human P56S protein results in cellular aggregates (4,5). The fact that the aggregation phenotype of this mutation is conserved down to Drosophila is quite interesting. Aggregates are commonly observed within ALS cases, as well as other neurodegenerative diseases, although whether these aggregates are pathogenic is still up for debate. The formation of intracellular aggregates has also been observed via expression of mutant SOD1 and mutant TDP-43 (3). Taken together, the observation that three different familial ALS genes all are capable of inducing intracellular aggregates reinforces the notion that understanding the activation of pathways by protein misfolding is key to understanding the pathogenic nature of ALS.

    View all comments by John Landers

This paper appears in the following:


  1. Less VAPid Now: Role for ALS Protein Gets Substance