Studying synaptic development and function using C. elegans
Defects in the proper development and function of synapses lead to neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism and Intellectual Disability, however the molecular mechanisms underlying these processes are still largely unknown. We use the nematode C. elegans, which has a simple and stereotyped nervous system and whose connectome has been fully mapped out, to investigate the conserved molecular mechanisms of synapse development. In particular, we study how presynaptic components including cell adhesion molecules, active zone scaffold proteins, calcium channels and synaptic vesicles arrive at the synapse and form a mature and fully functional presynaptic compartment. We combine the power of worm genetics with high resolution imaging and optical physiology readouts to elucidate the role of key molecules. These approaches have led to discoveries suggesting that the role of synaptic cell adhesion molecules such as Neurexin may be different than initially hypothesized, as we have shown that its role in presynaptic development is independent of extracellular activation and downstream of other initiating factors.