Studying Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and the Signaling Role of Dystrophin in C. elegans

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Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a lethal, X-linked disease characterized by progressive muscle degeneration. The condition is driven by out-of-frame mutations in the dystrophin gene, and the absence of a

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a lethal, X-linked disease characterized by progressive muscle degeneration. The condition is driven by out-of-frame mutations in the dystrophin gene, and the absence of a functional dystrophin protein ultimately leads to instability of the sarcolemma, skeletal muscle necrosis, and atrophy. While the structural changes that occur in dystrophic muscle are well characterized, resulting changes in muscle-specific gene expression that take place in dystrophin’s absence remain largely uncharacterized, as they are potentially obscured by the characteristic chronic inflammation in dystrophin deficient muscle.

The conservation of the dystrophin gene across metazoans suggests that both vertebrate and invertebrate model systems can provide valuable contributions to the understanding of DMD initiation and progression. Specifically, the invertebrate C. elegans possesses a dystrophin protein ortholog, dys-1, and a mild inflammatory response that is inactive in the muscle, allowing for the characterization of transcriptome rearrangements affecting disease progression independently of inflammation. Furthermore, C. elegans do not possess a satellite cell equivalent, meaning muscle regeneration does not occur. This makes C. elegans unique in that they allow for the study of dystrophin deficiencies without muscle regeneration that may obscure detection of subtle but consequential changes in gene expression.

I hypothesize that gaining a comprehensive definition of both the structural and signaling roles of dystrophin in C. elegans will improve the community’s understanding of the progression of DMD as a whole. To address this hypothesis, I have performed a phylogenetic analysis on the conservation of each member of the dystrophin associated protein complex (DAPC) across 10 species, established an in vivo system to identify muscle-specific changes in gene expression in the dystrophin-deficient C. elegans, and performed a functional analysis to test the biological significance of changes in gene expression identified in my sequencing results. The results from this study indicate that in C. elegans, dystrophin may have a signaling role early in development, and its absence may activate compensatory mechanisms that counteract disease progression. Furthermore, these findings allow for the identification of transcriptome changes that potentially serve as both independent drivers of disease and potential therapeutic targets for the treatment of DMD.