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PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e57539. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057539. Epub 2013 Mar 4.

Primary neuron culture for nerve growth and axon guidance studies in zebrafish (Danio rerio).

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  • 1Mayo Graduate School, College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, United States of America.


Zebrafish (Danio rerio) is a widely used model organism in genetics and developmental biology research. Genetic screens have proven useful for studying embryonic development of the nervous system in vivo, but in vitro studies utilizing zebrafish have been limited. Here, we introduce a robust zebrafish primary neuron culture system for functional nerve growth and guidance assays. Distinct classes of central nervous system neurons from the spinal cord, hindbrain, forebrain, and retina from wild type zebrafish, and fluorescent motor neurons from transgenic reporter zebrafish lines, were dissociated and plated onto various biological and synthetic substrates to optimize conditions for axon outgrowth. Time-lapse microscopy revealed dynamically moving growth cones at the tips of extending axons. The mean rate of axon extension in vitro was 21.4±1.2 µm hr(-1) s.e.m. for spinal cord neurons, which corresponds to the typical ∼0.5 mm day(-1) growth rate of nerves in vivo. Fluorescence labeling and confocal microscopy demonstrated that bundled microtubules project along axons to the growth cone central domain, with filamentous actin enriched in the growth cone peripheral domain. Importantly, the growth cone surface membrane expresses receptors for chemotropic factors, as detected by immunofluorescence microscopy. Live-cell functional assays of axon extension and directional guidance demonstrated mammalian brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)-dependent stimulation of outgrowth and growth cone chemoattraction, whereas mammalian myelin-associated glycoprotein inhibited outgrowth. High-resolution live-cell Ca(2+)-imaging revealed local elevation of cytoplasmic Ca(2+) concentration in the growth cone induced by BDNF application. Moreover, BDNF-induced axon outgrowth, but not basal outgrowth, was blocked by treatments to suppress cytoplasmic Ca(2+) signals. Thus, this primary neuron culture model system may be useful for studies of neuronal development, chemotropic axon guidance, and mechanisms underlying inhibition of neural regeneration in vitro, and complement observations made in vivo.

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