Here are some recent papers that we have published:

Deep phenotyping unveils hidden traits and genetic relations in subtle mutants

Published: Nov 21, 2016; Nature Communications
Adriana San-Miguel, Peri T. Kurshan, Matthew M. Crane, Yuehui Zhao, Patrick T. McGrath, Kang Shen & Hang Lu

Discovering mechanistic insights from phenotypic information is critical for the understanding of biological processes. For model organisms, unlike in cell culture, this is currently bottlenecked by the non-quantitative nature and perceptive biases of human observations, and the limited number of reporters that can be simultaneously incorporated in live animals. An additional challenge is that isogenic populations exhibit significant phenotypic heterogeneity. These difficulties limit genetic approaches to many biological questions. To overcome these bottlenecks, we developed tools to extract complex phenotypic traits from images of fluorescently labelled subcellular landmarks, using C. elegans synapses as a test case. By population-wide comparisons, we identified subtle but relevant differences inaccessible to subjective conceptualization. Furthermore, the models generated testable hypotheses of how individual alleles relate to known mechanisms or belong to new pathways. We show that our model not only recapitulates current knowledge in synaptic patterning but also identifies novel alleles overlooked by traditional methods.

Balancing selection shapes density-dependent foraging behaviour

Published: Oct 31, 2016; Nature
Joshua S. Greene, Maximillian Brown, May Dobosiewicz, Itzel G. Ishida, Evan Z. Macosko, Xinxing Zhang, Rebecca A. Butcher, Devin J. Cline, Patrick T. McGrath § & Cornelia I. Bargmann §

The optimal foraging strategy in a given environment depends on the number of competing individuals and their behavioural strategies. Little is known about the genes and neural circuits that integrate social information into foraging decisions. Here we show that ascaroside pheromones, small glycolipids that signal population density, suppress exploratory foraging in Caenorhabditis elegans, and that heritable variation in this behaviour generates alternative foraging strategies. We find that natural C. elegans isolates differ in their sensitivity to the potent ascaroside icas#9 (IC-asc-C5). A quantitative trait locus (QTL) regulating icas#9 sensitivity includes srx-43, a G-protein-coupled icas#9 receptor that acts in the ASI class of sensory neurons to suppress exploration. Two ancient haplotypes associated with this QTL confer competitive growth advantages that depend on ascaroside secretion, its detection by srx-43 and the distribution of food. These results suggest that balancing selection at the srx-43 locus generates alternative density-dependent behaviours, fulfilling a prediction of foraging game theory.

Selection on a Subunit of the NURF Chromatin Remodeler Modifies Life History Traits in a Domesticated Strain of Caenorhabditis elegans

Published: July 28, 2016; PLOS Genetics
Large EE, Xu W, Zhao Y, Brady SC, Long L, R. Butcher, E. Andersen, P. T. Mcgrath

Evolutionary life history theory seeks to explain how reproductive and survival traits are shaped by selection through allocations of an individual’s resources to competing life functions. Although life-history traits evolve rapidly, little is known about the genetic and cellular mechanisms that control and couple these tradeoffs. Here, we find that two laboratory-adapted strains of C. elegans descended from a single common ancestor that lived in the 1950s have differences in a number of life-history traits, including reproductive timing, lifespan, dauer formation, growth rate, and offspring number. We identified a quantitative trait locus (QTL) of large effect that controls 24%–75% of the total trait variance in reproductive timing at various timepoints. Using CRISPR/Cas9-induced genome editing, we show this QTL is due in part to a 60 bp deletion in the 3’ end of the nurf-1 gene, which is orthologous to the human gene encoding the BPTF component of the NURF chromatin remodeling complex. Besides reproduction, nurf-1 also regulates growth rate, lifespan, and dauer formation. The fitness consequences of this deletion are environment specific—it increases fitness in the growth conditions where it was fixed but decreases fitness in alternative laboratory growth conditions. We propose that chromatin remodeling, acting through nurf-1, is a pleiotropic regulator of life history trade-offs underlying the evolution of multiple traits across different species.

A high-throughput device for size based separation of C. elegans developmental stages

Published: March, 2014; Lab on a Chip
Xiaoni Ai, Weipeng Zhuo, Qionglin Liang *, Patrick T. McGrath * and Hang Lu *

Caenorhabditis elegans is a widely used model organism to study development, aging and behavior. Many of these biological studies require staging a large number of worms to assay a synchronized population of animals. Conventional synchronization techniques such as manual picking, gravity stratification and chemical bleaching are labor-intensive and could perturb animals’ physiology. Thus, there is a need for a simple inexpensive technology to sort a mixed population of worms based on their developmental stages with minimal perturbation. Here we demonstrate a simple but accurate and high-throughput technique to sort based on animal size, which correlates well with developmental stages. The device consists of an array of geometrically optimized pillars that act as a sieve to allow worms of specific sizes to rapidly move through. With optimized chamber heights, pillar spacing and driving pressures, these binary separation devices are capable of independently separating a mixture of worms at two different stages at average efficiency of around 95%, and throughput of hundreds of worms per minute. In addition, when four devices are used sequentially, we demonstrate the ability to stratify a mixture of worms of all developmental stages with >85% overall efficiency.

Varieties of behavioral natural variation

Published: August, 2012; Current Opinion in Neurobiology

P. T. McGrath

Behavior is flexible at different timescales, modifiable by experience in the short term and by evolution in the long term. In order to understand how behavior evolves, we must both understand how trait differences between individuals are inherited and how a subset of these differences get fixed within a species’ lineage. Work over the past few decades has shown that this will not be easy; the genetic basis of heritable behavioral differences between two individuals is typically complex, caused by multiple genetic variants of small effect. Here I describe how the underlying genetic networks impact the types of genetic variants that can be selected for by evolution.

Parallel evolution of domesticated Caenorhabditis species targets pheromone receptor genes

Published: August, 2012; Nature
P.T. McGrath, Y. Xu, M. Ailion, J.L. Garrison, R.A. Butcher, C.I. Bargmann

Evolution can follow predictable genetic trajectories, indicating that discrete environmental shifts can select for reproducible genetic changes. Conspecific individuals are an important feature of an animal’s environment, and a potential source of selective pressures. Here we show that adaptation of two Caenorhabditis species to growth at high density, a feature common to domestic environments, occurs by reproducible genetic changes to pheromone receptor genes. Chemical communication through pheromones that accumulate during high-density growth causes young nematode larvae to enter the long-lived but non-reproductive dauer stage. Two strains of Caenorhabditis elegans grown at high density have independently acquired multigenic resistance to pheromone-induced dauer formation. In each strain, resistance to the pheromone ascaroside C3 results from a deletion that disrupts the adjacent chemoreceptor genes serpentine receptor class g (srg)-36 and -37. Through misexpression experiments, we show that these genes encode redundant G-protein-coupled receptors for ascaroside C3. Multigenic resistance to dauer formation has also arisen in high-density cultures of a different nematode species, Caenorhabditis briggsae, resulting in part from deletion of an srg gene paralogous to srg-36 and srg-37. These results demonstrate rapid remodelling of the chemoreceptor repertoire as an adaptation to specific environments, and indicate that parallel changes to a common genetic substrate can affect life-history traits across species.

Quantitative mapping of a digenic behavioral trait implicates globin variation in C. elegans sensory behaviors.

Published: August, 2012; Neuron

 P.T. McGrath, M.V. Rockman, M. Zimmer, H. Jang, E.Z. Macosko, L. Kruglyak, C.I. Bargmann

Most heritable behavioral traits have a complex genetic basis, but few multigenic traits are understood at a molecular level. Here we show that the C. elegans strains N2 and CB4856 have opposite behavioral responses to simultaneous changes in environmental O(2) and CO(2). We identify two quantitative trait loci (QTL) that affect this trait and map each QTL to a single-gene polymorphism. One gene, npr-1, encodes a previously described neuropeptide receptor whose high activity in N2 promotes CO(2) avoidance. The second gene, glb-5, encodes a neuronal globin domain protein whose high activity in CB4856 modifies behavioral responses to O(2) and combined O(2)/CO(2) stimuli. glb-5 acts in O(2)-sensing neurons to increase O(2)-evoked calcium signals, implicating globins in sensory signaling. An analysis of wild C. elegans strains indicates that the N2 alleles of npr-1 and glb-5 arose recently in the same strain background, possibly as an adaptation to laboratory conditions.

High-throughput identification of transcription start sites, conserved promoter motifs and predicted regulons

P.T. McGrath, H. Lee, L. Zhang, A.A. Iniesta, A.K. Hottes, M.H. Tan, N.J. Hillson, P. Hu, L. Shapiro, H.H. McAdams

Using 62 probe-level datasets obtained with a custom-designed Caulobacter crescentus microarray chip, we identify transcriptional start sites of 769 genes, 53 of which are transcribed from multiple start sites. Transcriptional start sites are identified by analyzing probe signal cross-correlation matrices created from probe pairs tiled every 5 bp upstream of the genes. Signals from probes binding the same message are correlated. The contribution of each promoter for genes transcribed from multiple promoters is identified. Knowing the transcription start site enables targeted searching for regulatory-protein binding motifs in the promoter regions of genes with similar expression patterns. We identified 27 motifs, 17 of which share no similarity to the characterized motifs of other C. crescentus transcriptional regulators. Using these motifs, we predict coregulated genes. We verified novel promoter motifs that regulate stress-response genes, including those responding to uranium challenge, a stress-response sigma factor and a stress-response noncoding RNA.

A dynamically localized protease complex and a polar specificity factor control a cell cycle master regulator

P.T. McGrath, A. A. Iniesta, K.R. Ryan, L. Shaprio, H.H. McAdams

Regulated proteolysis is essential for cell cycle progression in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. We show here that the ClpXP protease, responsible for the degradation of multiple bacterial proteins, is dynamically localized to specific cellular positions in Caulobacter where it degrades colocalized proteins. The CtrA cell cycle master regulator, that must be cleared from the Caulobacter cell to allow the initiation of chromosome replication, interacts with the ClpXP protease at the cell pole where it is degraded. We have identified a novel, conserved protein, RcdA, that forms a complex with CtrA and ClpX in the cell. RcdA is required for CtrA polar localization and degradation by ClpXP. The localization pattern of RcdA is coincident with and dependent upon ClpX localization. Thus, a dynamically localized ClpXP proteolysis complex in concert with a cytoplasmic factor provides temporal and spatial specificity to protein degradation during a bacterial cell cycle.

Rapid and sequential movement of individual chromosomal loci to specific subcellular locations during bacterial DNA replication

PH Viollier, M Thanbichler, PT McGrath, L West, M Meewan, HH McAdams, L Shapiro

The chromosomal origin and terminus of replication are precisely localized in bacterial cells. We examined the cellular position of 112 individual loci that are dispersed over the circular Caulobacter crescentus chromosome and found that in living cells each locus has a specific subcellular address and that these loci are arrayed in linear order along the long axis of the cell. Time-lapse microscopy of the location of the chromosomal origin and 10 selected loci in the origin-proximal half of the chromosome showed that during DNA replication, as the replisome sequentially copies each locus, the newly replicated DNA segments are moved in chronological order to their final subcellular destination in the nascent half of the predivisional cell. Thus, the remarkable organization of the chromosome is being established while DNA replication is still in progress. The fact that the movement of these 10 loci is, like that of the origin, directed and rapid, and occurs at a similar rate, suggests that the same molecular machinery serves to partition and place many, if not most, chromosomal loci at defined subcellular sites.

A phospho-signaling pathway controls the localization and activity of a protease complex critical for bacterial cell cycle progression.

AA Iniesta, PT McGrath, A Reisenauer, HH McAdams, L Shapiro

Temporally and spatially controlled master regulators drive the Caulobacter cell cycle by regulating the expression of >200 genes. Rapid clearance of the master regulator, CtrA, by the ClpXP protease is a critical event that enables the initiation of chromosome replication at specific times in the cell cycle. We show here that a previously unidentified single domain-response regulator, CpdR, when in the unphosphorylated state, binds to ClpXP and, thereby, causes its localization to the cell pole. We further show that ClpXP localization is required for CtrA proteolysis. When CpdR is phosphorylated, ClpXP is delocalized, and CtrA is not degraded. Both CtrA and CpdR are phosphorylated via the same CckA histidine kinase phospho-signaling pathway, providing a reinforcing mechanism that simultaneously activates CtrA and prevents its degradation by delocalizing the CpdR/ClpXP complex. In swarmer cells, CpdR is in the phosphorylated state, thus preventing ClpXP localization and CtrA degradation. As swarmer cells differentiate into stalked cells (G1/S transition), unphosphorylated CpdR accumulates and is localized to the stalked cell pole, where it enables ClpXP localization and CtrA proteolysis, allowing the initiation of DNA replication. Dynamic protease localization mediated by a phospho-signaling pathway is a novel mechanism to integrate spatial and temporal control of bacterial cell cycle progression.

Small non-coding RNAs in Caulobacter crescentus

SG Landt, E Abeliuk, PT McGrath, JA Lesley, HH McAdams, L Shapiro

Small non-coding RNAs (sRNAs) are active in many bacterial cell functions, including regulation of the cell’s response to environmental challenges. We describe the identification of 27 novel Caulobacter crescentus sRNAs by analysis of RNA expression levels assayed using a tiled Caulobacter microarray and a protocol optimized for detection of sRNAs. The principal analysis method involved identification of sets of adjacent probes with unusually high correlation between the individual intergenic probes within the set, suggesting presence of a sRNA. Among the validated sRNAs, two are candidate transposase gene antisense RNAs. The expression of 10 of the sRNAs is regulated by either entry into stationary phase, carbon starvation, or rich versus minimal media. The expression of four of the novel sRNAs changes as the cell cycle progresses. One of these shares a promoter motif with several genes expressed at the swarmer-to-stalked cell transition; while another appears to be controlled by the CtrA global transcriptional regulator. The probe correlation analysis approach reported here is of general use for large-scale sRNA identification for any sequenced microbial genome.

Conserved modular design of an oxygen sensory/signaling network with species-specific output

S Crosson, PT McGrath, C Stephens, HH McAdams, L Shapiro

Principles of modular design are evident in signaling networks that detect and integrate a given signal and, depending on the organism in which the network module is present, transduce this signal to affect different metabolic or developmental pathways. Here we report a global transcriptional analysis of an oxygen sensory/signaling network in Caulobacter crescentus consisting of the sensor histidine kinase FixL, its cognate response regulator FixJ, the transcriptional regulator FixK, and the kinase inhibitor FixT. It is known that in rhizobial bacteria these proteins form a network that regulates transcription of genes required for symbiotic nitrogen fixation, anaerobic and microaerobic respiration, and hydrogen metabolism under hypoxic conditions. We have identified a positive feedback loop in this network and present evidence that the negative feedback regulator, FixT, acts to inhibit FixL by mimicking a response regulator. Overall, the core circuit topology of the Fix network is conserved between the rhizobia and C. crescentus, a free-living aerobe that cannot fix nitrogen, respire anaerobically, or metabolize hydrogen. In C. crescentus, the Fix network is required for normal cellular growth during hypoxia and controls expression of genes encoding four distinct aerobic respiratory terminal oxidases and multiple carbon and nitrogen metabolic enzymes. Thus, the Fix network is a conserved sensory/signaling module whose transcriptional output has been adapted to the unique physiologies of C. crescentus and the nitrogen-fixing rhizobia.

Cytokinesis signals truncation of the PodJ polarity factor by a cell cycle-regulated protease

JC Chen, AK Hottes, HH McAdams, PT McGrath, PH Viollier, L Shapiro

We demonstrate that successive cleavage events involving regulated intramembrane proteolysis (Rip) occur as a function of time during the Caulobacter cell cycle. The proteolytic substrate PodJL is a polar factor that recruits proteins required for polar organelle biogenesis to the correct cell pole at a defined time in the cell cycle. We have identified a periplasmic protease (PerP) that initiates the proteolytic sequence by truncating PodJL to a form with altered activity (PodJS). Expression of perP is regulated by a signal transduction system that activates cell type‐specific transcription programs and conversion of PodJL to PodJS in response to the completion of cytokinesis. PodJS, sequestered to the progeny swarmer cell, is subsequently released from the polar membrane by the membrane metalloprotease MmpA for degradation during the swarmer‐to‐stalked cell transition. This sequence of proteolytic events contributes to the asymmetric localization of PodJ isoforms to the appropriate cell pole. Thus, temporal activation of the PerP protease and spatial restriction of the polar PodJL substrate cooperatively control the cell cycle‐dependent onset of Rip.

Setting the pace: mechanisms tying Caulobacter cell-cycle progression to macroscopic cellular events

PT McGrath, P Viollier, HH McAdams 

The bacterium Caulobacter crescentus divides asymmetrically, producing daughter cells with differing polar structures, different cell fates and asymmetric regulation of the initiation of chromosome replication. Complex intracellular signaling is required to keep the organelle developmental processes at the cell poles synchronized with other cell cycle events. Two recently characterized switch mechanisms controlling cell cycle progress are triggered by relatively large-scale developmental events in the cell: the progress of the DNA replication fork and the physical compartmentalization of the cell that occurs well before division. These mechanisms invoke rapid, precisely timed and even spatially differentiated regulatory responses at important points in the cell cycle.