The autism protein UBE3A/E6AP regulates remodeling of neuronal dendritic arborization
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Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are clinically characterized by decreased communication abilities, impaired social interaction, and the occurrence of repetitive behaviors, with high genetic heritability. Ubiquitin protein ligase E3A (UBE3A) is a gene located on human chromosome 15q11-13, a region that has been the focus of genetic studies of susceptibility to ASD AND Angelman syndrome. An increased UBE3A gene dosage and thus an elevated amount of E6AP, the protein product of UBE3A, is associated with ASD. However, the underlying cellular and molecular details remain poorly understood. Normal development of neuronal structure is critical for intercellular connectivity and overall brain function, and abnormal brain development is a commonality amongst ASDs. These studies therefore investigated the role of increased dosage of Ube3A/E6AP in dendritic arborization and synapse maturation during brain development. Increased E6AP expression in vitro led to significant reduction in dendritic arborization by thinning and fragmentation of the distal tip, along with a decrease in spine density and an increase in immature spines in hippocampal neurons. This morphological remodeling effect was mediated by the ubiquitination and subsequent degradation of the X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis protein (XIAP) by E6AP, which led to activation of caspase-3. Furthermore, activated caspases cleaved tubulin, leading to retraction of microtubules from the distal tip of dendrites, dendritic thinning and eventual disappearance. In vivo studies investigated the role of E6AP in ASD-related neuronal development in Ube3A 2X transgenic mice and found that, consistent with our in vitro studies, increased E6AP in the brain lead to decreased XIAP levels, increased active caspase-3, and enhanced tubulin cleavage in hippocampal tissue in Ube3A 2X mice. In accord, Ube3A 2X mice showed a reduction in dendritic growth and branching and spine density. This work elucidated an important role of Ube3A/E6AP in dendritic pruning and identified XIAP as a novel ubiquitination target of E6AP. These findings provide a new insight into the molecular pathways underlying neurodevelopmental defects in Ube3A/E6AP-associated ASDs.