Conserved Tao Kinase Activity Regulates Dendritic Arborization, Cytoskeletal Dynamics, and Sensory Function in Drosophila

J Neurosci. 2020 Feb 26;40(9):1819-1833. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1846-19.2020. Epub 2020 Jan 21.


Dendritic arborization is highly regulated and requires tight control of dendritic growth, branching, cytoskeletal dynamics, and ion channel expression to ensure proper function. Abnormal dendritic development can result in altered network connectivity, which has been linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). How neuronal growth control programs tune dendritic arborization to ensure function is still not fully understood. Using Drosophila dendritic arborization (da) neurons as a model, we identified the conserved Ste20-like kinase Tao as a negative regulator of dendritic arborization. We show that Tao kinase activity regulates cytoskeletal dynamics and sensory channel localization required for proper sensory function in both male and female flies. We further provide evidence for functional conservation of Tao kinase, showing that its ASD-linked human ortholog, Tao kinase 2 (Taok2), could replace Drosophila Tao and rescue dendritic branching, dynamic microtubule alterations, and behavioral defects. However, several ASD-linked Taok2 variants displayed impaired rescue activity, suggesting that Tao/Taok2 mutations can disrupt sensory neuron development and function. Consistently, we show that Tao kinase activity is required in developing and as well as adult stages for maintaining normal dendritic arborization and sensory function to regulate escape and social behavior. Our data suggest an important role for Tao kinase signaling in cytoskeletal organization to maintain proper dendritic arborization and sensory function, providing a strong link between developmental sensory aberrations and behavioral abnormalities relevant for Taok2-dependent ASDs.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are linked to abnormal dendritic arbors. However, the mechanisms of how dendritic arbors develop to promote functional and proper behavior are unclear. We identified Drosophila Tao kinase, the ortholog of the ASD risk gene Taok2, as a regulator of dendritic arborization in sensory neurons. We show that Tao kinase regulates cytoskeletal dynamics, controls sensory ion channel localization, and is required to maintain somatosensory function in vivo Interestingly, ASD-linked human Taok2 mutations rendered it nonfunctional, whereas its WT form could restore neuronal morphology and function in Drosophila lacking endogenous Tao. Our findings provide evidence for a conserved role of Tao kinase in dendritic development and function of sensory neurons, suggesting that aberrant sensory function might be a common feature of ASDs.

Keywords: Tao kinase; autism spectrum disorders; cytoskeletal dynamics; dendritic arborization; sensory neuron.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Actins / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified
  • Cytoskeleton / physiology*
  • Cytoskeleton / ultrastructure
  • Dendrites / physiology*
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Drosophila
  • Drosophila Proteins / genetics*
  • Drosophila Proteins / physiology*
  • Escape Reaction
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics*
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / physiology*
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Social Behavior


  • Actins
  • Drosophila Proteins
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Tao protein, Drosophila