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ALS, motor neuron disease treatments could arise from study of finger, toe wiring

| | February 21, 2017

The GLP curated this excerpt as part of a daily selection of biotechnology-related news, opinion and analysis.

[Editor’s note: Thomas Jessell, the study’s co-author, co-directs Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute as a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics.]

A study published [February 2017] looks at the genes that are switched on and off in an embryo to wire up fingers and toes to the central nervous system. The molecular-scale view provided in this latest study suggests how the wiring process may have evolved.

What does this tell us about how fine-motor control evolved?

All motor neurons work in the same way. But how do they choose to project to the extremities, where you find the digit muscles? Our findings tell us that two things have to happen: One is that Hox genes must be altered by evolution to get this strange variant code. The other is that you have to avoid retinoic acid if you want to have a chance of being a motor neuron that innervates digit muscles.

nervous system
Hands and feet—and the digits that extend from them—emerged about 400 million years ago, endowing the first land animals with fine-motor control, a major turning point in evolution. Credit: Scientific American.

Do your findings have any therapeutic potential?

They’re relevant in the context of treating diseases like ALS, a motor neuron degenerative disease that starts with weakness in the extremities and eventually leads to complete loss of all motor function. Until now researchers trying to develop treatments wouldn’t have known how to generate the motor neurons that innervate the limb digit muscles, but our findings give them an opportunity to do so.

[The study can be found here.]

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Read full, original post: Nerve Cells That Go Out on a Limb Show How the Ability to Tweet Evolved

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