Background: Axon pruning is involved in establishment and maintenance of functional neural circuits. During metamorphosis of Drosophila, selective pruning of larval axons is developmentally regulated by ecdysone and caused by local axon degeneration. Previous studies have revealed intrinsic molecular and cellular mechanisms that trigger this pruning process, but how pruning is accomplished remains essentially unknown.
Results: Detailed analysis of morphological changes in the axon branches of Drosophila mushroom body (MB) neurons revealed that during early pupal stages, clusters of neighboring varicosities, each of which belongs to different axons, disappear simultaneously shortly before the onset of local axon degeneration. At this stage, bundles of axon branches are infiltrated by the processes of surrounding glia. These processes engulf clusters of varicosities and accumulate intracellular degradative compartments. Selective inhibition of cellular functions, including endocytosis, in glial cells via the temperature-sensitive allele of shibire both suppresses glial infiltration and varicosity elimination and induces a severe delay in axon pruning. Selective inhibition of ecdysone receptors in the MB neurons severely suppressed not only axon pruning but also the infiltration and engulfing action of the surrounding glia.
Conclusions: These findings strongly suggest that glial cells are extrinsically activated by ecdysone-stimulated MB neurons. These glial cells infiltrate the mass of axon branches to eliminate varicosities and break down axon branches actively rather than just scavenging already-degraded debris. We therefore propose that neuron-glia interaction is essential for the precisely coordinated axon-pruning process during Drosophila metamorphosis.