Devl. Biol. 227: 595-605 (2000)

Dystroglycan overexpression in vivo alters acetylcholine receptor aggregation at the neuromuscular junction.

R. David Heathcote, Jonathan Ekman, Kevin P. Campbell, Earl W. Godfrey

Dystroglycan is a member of the transmembrane dystrophin glycoprotein complex in muscle that binds to the synapse-organizing molecule agrin. Dystroglycan binding and AChR aggregation are mediated by two separate domains of agrin. To test whether dystroglycan plays a role in receptor aggreg ation at the neuromuscular junction, we overexpressed it by injecting rabbit dystroglycan RNA into one or two-celled Xenopus embryos. We measured AChR aggregation in myotomes by labeling them with rhodamine-a-bungarotoxin followed by confocal microscopy and image analysis. Dystroglycan overexpression decreased AChR aggregation at the neuromuscular junction. This result is consistent with dystroglycan competition for agrin without signaling AChR aggregation. It also supports the hypothesis that dystroglycan is not the myotube-associated specificity component (MASC), a putative co-receptor needed for agrin to activate muscle-specific kinase (MuSK) and signal AChR aggregation. Dystroglycan was distributed along the surface of muscle membranes, but was concentrated at the ends of myotomes, where AChRs normally aggregate at synapses. Overexpressed dystroglycan altered AChR aggregation in a rostral-caudal gradient, consistent with the sequential development of neuromuscular synapses along the embryo. Increasing concentrations of dystroglycan RNA did not further decrease AChR aggregation, but decreased embryo survival. Development often stopped during gastrulation, suggesting an essential, non-synaptic role of dystroglycan during this early period of development.