Formation and toxicity of soluble polyglutamine oligomers in living cells

Patrick Lajoie, Erik Lee Snapp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Background: Aggregation and cytotoxicity of mutant proteins containing an expanded number of polyglutamine (polyQ) repeats is a hallmark of several diseases, including Huntington's disease (HD). Within cells, mutant Huntingtin (mHtt) and other polyglutamine expansion mutant proteins exist as monomers, soluble oligomers, and insoluble inclusion bodies (IBs). Determining which of these forms constitute a toxic species has proven difficult. Recent studies support a role for IBs as a cellular coping mechanism to sequester levels of potentially toxic soluble monomeric and oligomeric species of mHtt. Methodology/Principal Findings: When fused to a fluorescent reporter (GFP) and expressed in cells, the soluble monomeric and oligomeric polyglutamine species are visually indistinguishable. Here, we describe two complementary biophysical fluorescence microscopy techniques to directly detect soluble polyglutamine oligomers (using Htt exon 1 or Httex1) and monitor their fates in live cells. Photobleaching analyses revealed a significant reduction in the mobilities of mHttex1 variants consistent with their incorporation into soluble microcomplexes. Similarly, when fused to split-GFP constructs, both wildtype and mHttex1 formed oligomers, as evidenced by the formation of a fluorescent reporter. Only the mHttex1 split-GFP oligomers assembled into IBs. Both FRAP and split-GFP approaches confirmed the ability of mHttex1 to bind and incorporate wildtype Htt into soluble oligomers. We exploited the irreversible binding of split-GFP fragments to forcibly increase levels of soluble oligomeric mHttex1. A corresponding increase in the rate of IBs formation and the number formed was observed. Importantly, higher levels of soluble mHttex1 oligomers significantly correlated with increased mutant cytotoxicity, independent of the presence of IBs. Conclusions/Significance: Our study describes powerful and sensitive tools for investigating soluble oligomeric forms of expanded polyglutamine proteins, and their impact on cell viability. Moreover, these methods should be applicable for the detection of soluble oligomers of a wide variety of aggregation prone proteins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere15245
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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