Accessory cells including glia are a structural component of the nervous system, regulating the microenvironment around neurons and primary sensory cells. While the functions of primary sensory cells are well known, researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine collaborated on the study “Glial Regulators of Ions and Solutes Required for Specific Chemosensory Functions in C. elegans” to better understand the function of accessory cells as it relates to regulation of the concentration of charged and uncharged molecules in the body.
The study, published in the December issue of the journal iScience, was led by Laura Bianchi, Ph.D., professor of physiology and biophysics, as corresponding and senior author; postdoctoral researcher Lei Wang, Ph.D., first author; and Bianca Graziano, M.D., second author. The project was launched in 2016 with the support of a University of Miami SAC pilot award for $25,000, which provided funding for the initial data. In 2018, the Bianchi Lab received an NIH R01 grant of more than $1 million, propelling the study further.
“We began this work to learn more about accessory cells of sensory systems,” Dr. Bianchi said. “Accessory cells have come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one of the most prevalent symptoms of the viral infection being the loss of taste and smell. Interestingly, the accessory cells of the olfactory epithelium seem primarily targeted by the virus; this reveals that these cells have key functions in olfaction.”
Gene Modification Links
The Bianchi Lab started to learn more about accessory cells by studying C. elegans, a nematode worm that offers many advantages for biomedical research, including ease of genetic modification. Through the modification process, several genes, including kcnq2 which is mutated in epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder, were found to be important for the function of the accessory cells of the worm’s sensory structures of smell and taste.
Furthermore, these genes control the concentration of charged and uncharged molecules, revealing that fine tuning of the composition of the milieu of sensory organs is important for their function, while finding a potential molecular link between sensory functions and some neurological conditions.
"C. elegans is an incredibly powerful and pioneering organism that I have been using throughout my career,” Dr. Wang said. “This organism can rapidly reveal novel mechanisms that can be further investigated in higher organisms, shedding light on complex processes in mammals.”
After this initial study, the Bianchi Lab will follow up on each identified gene to determine the in-depth mechanism of function in sensory perception. Findings from the research will help identify novel genes expressed in accessory cells of sensory organs and their importance in sensory function. These genes are conserved across species and could be novel targets for treating sensory disorders, including disturbances of taste and olfaction, and neurological disorders.