Researchers at The University of Queensland, led by Associate Professor Massimo Hilliard, have identified an important molecule that helps to protect the axons of nerve cells from degeneration.

With funding from the ARC Discovery Projects scheme, Professor Hilliard and his team used a transparent roundworm to identify a critical molecule vital to protecting the axon of a nerve cell. The molecule, LIN-14, was found to maintain the integrity of neurons and prevent their degeneration when present in the neuron and in its surrounding tissue.

Their research findings emphasise that complex connections between axons and their surrounding environment are critical for axons to survive later in life. This has opened the door to improving our understanding of axons in humans and created new avenues for researchers seeking to limit nerve degenerative processes.

This fundamental discovery has important implications for understanding the underlying biology of neurodegenerative conditions, where nerve axons are damaged.

The next step in this research is to gain further understanding of the interactions between axons and their surrounding tissue, and to identify similar molecules that facilitate the same degenerative process in humans.

Image: The tail of a nematode C. elegans, in which the main posterior mechanosensory neuron is highlighted (the blue fluorescence highlights the basement membrane). Due to a mutation in the gene lin-14, the axon is misguided and cannot maintain its structure (breaks), as it is visible as interruption of fluorescence continuity in the longest processes. Ritchie et al., revealed that LIN-14 function within the neuron itself as well as in its surrounding tissues (muscle and skin).
Image credit: Fiona Ritchie and Nick Valmas.