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Identification of pathways deregulating neuronal ELAV/Hu RNA binding proteins in neurodegeneration

Primary Supervisor: Dr Matthias Soller, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Peter Winn

PhD project title: Identification of pathways deregulating neuronal ELAV/Hu RNA binding proteins in neurodegeneration

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

ELAV/Hu proteins comprise a family of highly conserved neuronal RNA binding proteins important for the development of the nervous system and for neuronal functions [1, 2]. Aberrant regulation of their activity or expression results in a range of neurological phenotypes including learning deficits, epilepsy, synaptic growth defects and neurodegeneration in model organisms. In humans, ELAV/Hu proteins have been associated with schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases, but also with aging associated changes in alternative splicing. ELAV/Hu proteins are gene-specific regulators of alternative splicing of mRNAs, but can also affect other aspects of the maturation of an mRNA and its cytoplasmic expression into a protein [1-3].

Intriguingly, human Hu proteins can substitute for ELAV in a Drosophila model for alternative splicing regulation [2]. Since ELAV/Hu proteins bind short U-rich motifs embedded in a highly degenerate sequence context, it is thought that multimerization of ELAV/Hu proteins is key to generate target specificity and that this step is highly regulated by cellular signaling. Indeed, ELAV/Hu proteins have numerous sites for post-translational modifications [4]. From initial studies on human Hu proteins and single ELAVL2 in honey bees [5], we anticipate that altering phosphorylation will impact dramatically on ELAV function and will generate neurological phenotypes. We aim to dissect how ELAV activity is regulated by phosphorylation in Drosophila genetic and cell culture models for neurodegeneration. To obtain mechanistic insights into how phosphorylation impacts on alternative splicing regulation we will combine available structural information for molecular modelling of ELAV multimerization and RNA binding to instruct experimental validation.


  1. Soller, M. and White, K. (2004). ELAV. Curr. Biol. 14: R53.
  2. Zaharieva, E., Haussmann, I. U., Brauer, U. and Soller, M. (2015). Concentration and localization of co-expressed ELAV/Hu family proteins control specificity of mRNA processing. Mol. Cell. Biol. 35: 3104-3115. Cover story.
  1. Wei, L., Lee, S., Majumdar, S., Zhang, B., Sanfilippo, P., Joseph, B., Miura, P., Soller, M. and Lai E.C. (2020) Overlapping activities of ELAV/Hu family RNA binding proteins specify the extended neuronal 3’ UTR landscape in Drosophila. Molecular Cell, 80: 140-155.
  1. Brauer, U., Zaharieva, E., and Soller, M. (2014). Regulation of ELAV/Hu RNA binding proteins by phosphorylation. Biochem. Soc. Trans. 42:1147-51.
  1. Ustaoglu, P., Gill, J.K., Doubovetzky, N., Haussmann, I.U., Dix, T.C., Arnold, R., Devaud J.M. and Soller, M.(2021) Dynamically expressed ELAV is required for learning and memory in bees. Communications Biology, in revision. bioRxiv06.24.449637

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and behaviour & Systems Biology & Integrated Understanding of Health: Ageing

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    This project will incorporate a wide range of molecular and cell biology techniques, which will be applied by using the genetic model organism Drosophila, including, transgenesis and CRISPR/Cas9 mutagensis, and various cell culture models. The project will make use of state-of-the-art cellular imaging to study ELAV function in cells. Further, this project will apply statistical analysis of data and we will use molecular modelling of available structural information to make predictions how phosphorylations impacts on ELAV multimerization and RNA binding.

    Contact: Dr Matthias Soller, University of Birmingham