. Pathogenic huntingtin inhibits fast axonal transport by activating JNK3 and phosphorylating kinesin. Nat Neurosci. 2009 Jul;12(7):864-71. PubMed.

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  1. We would like to comment on the interesting results of the recent study by Morfini et al. (1). Kinesin-1, a major microtubule motor that transports cargo in the plus-end direction of microtubules, is a heterotetramer consisting of two microtubule-binding, motor polypeptides (the heavy chains; KHCs) and two cargo-binding polypeptides (the light chains; KLCs). Being a soluble, cytoplasmic protein, kinesin-1 needs to bind the cargo in order to transport it. Therefore, recruitment of kinesin-1 to the cargo vesicle, and its release from it, are important regulatory steps of axonal transport. About 10 years ago, Scott Brady’s laboratory identified the first mechanism leading to the release of kinesin-1 from vesicles. According to this model, kinesin-1 is released through the action of the chaperone HSC70, and is nucleotide-dependent and NEM-sensitive (2). One year later, work from Larry Goldstein’s laboratory suggested that the premature release of kinesin-1 from cargo vesicles in neurons could impair fast axonal transport and lead to neuronal pathology and disease (3). Although the mechanisms for the release of kinesin-1 from its vesicular cargos were incompletely understood at that time, the general idea that a premature release of the motor from its cargo could be at the core of the pathology in neurodegenerative diseases turned out to be correct, and generated an increased interest for research in this direction. Thus, work from the Brady and Busciglio laboratories identified at least two pathways for release of kinesin-1 from vesicles and halt of transport, which are likely to be factors leading to the axonal pathology and synaptic failure in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) (4-6).

    Both pathways lead to phosphorylation of the KLCs, followed by detachment of kinesin-1 from the cargo, and impairment of vesicle transport. They are initiated by the addition of soluble Aβ oligomers, or expression of FAD-linked presenilin 1 variants, which trigger aberrant activation of casein kinase 2 or glycogen synthase 3β, which phosphorylate the KLCs. Why the phosphorylated kinesin-1 is released from vesicles is still not fully understood.

    Along with AD, kinesin-1 is a target for abnormal phosphorylation in other neurodegenerative diseases, such as spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA) and Huntington’s disease, as revealed by the studies from the Brady laboratory, including the work featured here (1, 7). However, in this case, the phosphorylation targets the KHCs, and the activated kinase that performs the phosphorylation is the cJun-N-terminal kinease (JNK). The phosphorylation of the KHCs leads to inhibition of binding of kinesin-1 to microtubules. As a result, the kinesin-1-cargo complex is released from the microtubules, and the transport is halted. These studies showed that the abnormal activation of JNK is triggered by the pathogenic, polyglutaminated, mutant proteins characteristic for polyglutamine (polyQ) expansion diseases: polyQ-androgen receptor in SBMA) (7), and polyQ-huntingtin in Huntingon’s disease(1). As the study by Morfini et al. (1) showed, polyQ-huntingtin activates JNK3, a neuron-specific JNK, that in turn phosphorylates KHC at a serine residue critical for the microtubule-binding function of kinesin-1. While in this case JNK3 is aberrantly activated by a disease factor, it is likely that, under normal conditions, the JNK-3 pathway contributes to the regulation of axonal transport.

    Interestingly, in the squid axon system used in these studies, polyQ-huntingtin inhibits, not only the anterograde (kinesin-driven), but also the retrograde (cytoplasmic dynein-driven) fast axonal transport (1). It is not clear whether this inhibition of transport in both directions is due to the fact that kinesin-1 and cytoplasmic dynein interact and coordinate each other’s function (8), or is caused by a direct effect on the dynein machinery. Other studies showed that huntingtin regulates dynein-mediated vesicle transport, and can interact with both dynein and its accessory complex, dynactin (9, 10); however, the assays used by Morfini et al. (1) did not detect an interaction of huntingtin with dynein.

    Certainly, other mechanisms, besides the release of the kinesin motor from the cargo or the microtubules, could contribute to the pathogenic processes in these neurodegenerative diseases. Other potentially damaging pathways that target the intracellular transport by affecting the cytoskeleton or the supply of ATP (by disrupting mitochondrial function) have been described (reviewed in (11)). Also, the activation of the kinases is likely to lead to the abnormal phosphorylation of other protein targets as well, with detrimental consequences for the function of neurons via mechanisms that may not involve abnormal axonal transport. For now, a picture emerges where the release of kinesin-1 from either cargo or microtubules, followed by impairment of axonal transport, becomes an important component of the pathogenic process in many neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, it is the time to think of possibilities to correct the deficiencies, or to find means to enhance the disease-inflicted axonal transport.

    View all comments by Virgil Muresan