CRISPR-based gene replacement reveals evolutionarily conserved axon guidance functions of Drosophila Robo3 and Tribolium Robo2/3

Evodevo. 2017 Jun 1;8:10. doi: 10.1186/s13227-017-0073-y. eCollection 2017.


Background: Axon guidance receptors of the Roundabout (Robo) family regulate a number of axon guidance outcomes in bilaterian animals in addition to their canonical role in Slit-dependent midline repulsion. In the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, three Robo paralogs (Robo1, Robo2, and Robo3) each have specialized roles in regulating midline crossing and the formation of longitudinal axon pathways in the embryonic ventral nerve cord. The number of robo genes differs in other insects, and it is unknown whether the roles and/or signaling mechanisms of Drosophila Robos are shared in other insect species. To directly compare the axon guidance activities of Robo receptors in Drosophila and the flour beetle Tribolium castaneum, I have used a CRISPR/Cas9-based approach to replace Drosophila robo3 with Tribolium robo2/3.

Results: I show that when expressed from the robo3 locus in Drosophila embryos, Tribolium Robo2/3 (TcRobo2/3) protein is properly translated and localized to axons, where it reproduces the normal expression pattern of Drosophila Robo3. In embryos expressing TcRobo2/3 in place of robo3, two distinct subsets of longitudinal axons are guided properly to their normal positions in the intermediate neuropile, indicating that TcRobo2/3 can promote Robo3-dependent axon guidance decisions in developing Drosophila neurons.

Conclusions: These observations suggest that the mechanism by which Drosophila Robo3 promotes longitudinal pathway formation is evolutionarily conserved in Tribolium, where it is performed by TcRobo2/3. The CRISPR/Cas9-based gene replacement approach described here can be applied to comparative evolutionary developmental studies of other Drosophila genes and their orthologs in other species.

Keywords: Axon guidance; CRISPR; Drosophila; Longitudinal pathways; Roundabout; Slit; Tribolium.