A major aim of this grant is to investigate the developmental origin of the skeleton-forming cells in the head, as well as their ability to regenerate craniofacial skeleton in adults after injury. The head skeleton derives from a special population of cells, the neural crest, which has the remarkable ability to form not only neurons but also skeletal tissues. We have previously described that zebrafish with a mutant form of a variant histone H3.3 protein have very specific defects in the ability of neural crest cells to form skeleton. As histone H3.3 is a core component of the chromatin around which DNA is wrapped, our findings suggest a novel mechanism by which changes in chromatin structure endow the neural crest with the ability to form a wide array of derivatives. In the third year of this award, we have expanded our analysis to examine how the incorporation of histone H3.3 is regulated specifically in the neural crest population. Our data suggest that such H3.3 incorporation may depend on a novel chaperone protein as reducing the function of several known H3.3 chaperone proteins does not lead to specific neural crest or head skeletal defects. A clue to what regulates H3.3 activity comes from a second zebrafish mutant – called myx – that we are studying, which has head skeletal defects similar to what we see in our H3.3 mutant. We have mapped the myx mutant interval to a very small region that contains a putative H3.3 chaperone protein. We are currently establishing whether loss-of-function of this chaperone accounts for myx defects. Together, our studies of H3.3 and myx mutants will shed light on how to generate cells with the ability to form replacement head skeleton in patients. To this aim, we have also begun experiments to use our findings in zebrafish to directly convert mammalian cells (initially mouse but then in humans) to a neural crest and skeletal fate.
A parallel strategy that we are taking towards regenerative strategies for facial skeleton is to stimulate endogenous neural crest cells to make replacement skeleton. We have a limited ability to repair defects in our skeleton, for example after bone fracture. However, we have found that adult zebrafish have the remarkable ability to regenerate nearly their entire lower jaw following amputation. By studying why zebrafish regenerate facial skeleton to a much greater extent than humans, we hope to devise molecular strategies to augment skeletal repair/regeneration in patients. In particular, we have found that the zebrafish lower jaw bone regenerates through a cartilage intermediate, in contrast to the direct differentiation to bone during development. Hence, our findings indicate that bone regeneration in zebrafish is a cellularly distinct mechanism than bone development. Furthermore, we have found that the FGF signaling pathway is greatly upregulated during early jaw regeneration. FGF signaling also mediates the regeneration of the heart and other organs in zebrafish, and thus jaw regeneration may rely on a common regenerative program throughout the zebrafish. In the coming period, we plan to test the functional requirements of FGF signaling in mediating jaw regeneration, as well as identifying the stem cell populations that are the FGF-dependent source of new bone.