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J Biomed Sci. 2012 Apr 10;19:41. doi: 10.1186/1423-0127-19-41.

Clues to γ-secretase, huntingtin and Hirano body normal function using the model organism Dictyostelium discoideum.

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  • 1Molecular Neurogenetics Unit, Center for Human Genetic Research, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114, USA.


Many neurodegenerative disorders, although related by their destruction of brain function, display remarkable cellular and/or regional pathogenic specificity likely due to a deregulated functionality of the mutant protein. However, neurodegenerative disease genes, for example huntingtin (HTT), the ataxins, the presenilins (PSEN1/PSEN2) are not simply localized to neurons but are ubiquitously expressed throughout peripheral tissues; it is therefore paramount to properly understand the earliest precipitating events leading to neuronal pathogenesis to develop effective long-term therapies. This means, in no unequivocal terms, it is crucial to understand the gene's normal function. Unfortunately, many genes are often essential for embryogenesis which precludes their study in whole organisms. This is true for HTT, the β-amyloid precursor protein (APP) and presenilins, responsible for early onset Alzheimer's disease (AD). To better understand neurological disease in humans, many lower and higher eukaryotic models have been established. So the question arises: how reasonable is the use of organisms to study neurological disorders when the model of choice does not contain neurons? Here we will review the surprising, and novel emerging use of the model organism Dictyostelium discoideum, a species of soil-living amoeba, as a valuable biomedical tool to study the normal function of neurodegenerative genes. Historically, the evidence on the usefulness of simple organisms to understand the etiology of cellular pathology cannot be denied. But using an organism without a central nervous system to understand diseases of the brain? We will first introduce the life cycle of Dictyostelium, the presence of many disease genes in the genome and how it has provided unique opportunities to identify mechanisms of disease involving actin pathologies, mitochondrial disease, human lysosomal and trafficking disorders and host-pathogen interactions. Secondly, I will highlight recent studies on the function of HTT, presenilin γ-secretase and Hirano bodies conducted in Dictyostelium. I will then outline the limitations and future directions in using Dictyostelium to study disease, and finally conclude that given the evolutionary conservation of genes between Dictyostelium and humans and the organisms' genetic tractability, that this system provides a fertile environment for discovering normal gene function related to neurodegeneration and will permit translational studies in higher systems.

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