Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a prevalent X-linked neuromuscular disease for which there is currently no cure. Recently, it was demonstrated in a transgenic mouse model that utrophin could functionally compensate for the lack of dystrophin and alleviate the muscle pathology (Tinsley, J. M., Potter, A. C., Phelps, S. R., Fisher, R., Trickett, J. I., and Davies, K. E. (1996) Nature 384, 349-353). In this context, it thus becomes essential to determine the cellular and molecular mechanisms presiding over utrophin expression in attempts to overexpress the endogenous gene product throughout skeletal muscle fibers. In a recent study, we showed that the nerve exerts a profound influence on utrophin gene expression and postulated that nerve- derived trophic factors mediate the local transcriptional activation of the utrophin gene within nuclei located in the postsynaptic sarcoplasm (Gramolini, A. O., Dennis, C. L., Tinsley, J. M., Robertson, G. S., Davies, K. E, Cartaud, J., and Jasmin, B. J. (1997) J. Biol. Chem. 272, 8117-8120). In the present study, we have therefore focused on the effect of agrin on utrophin expression in cultured C2 myotubes. In response to Torpedo-, muscle- , or nerve-derived agrin, we observed a significant 2-fold increase in utrophin mRNAs. By contrast, CGRP treatment failed to affect expression of utrophin transcripts. Western blotting experiments also revealed that the increase in utrophin mRNAs was accompanied by an increase in the levels of utrophin. To determine whether these changes were caused by parallel increases in the transcriptional activity of the utrophin gene, we transfected muscle cells with a 1.3-kilobase pair utrophin promoter-reporter (nlsLacZ) gene construct and treated them with agrin for 24-48 h. Under these conditions, both muscle- and nerve-derived agrin increased the activity of β-galactosidase, indicating that agrin treatment led, directly or indirectly, to the transcriptional activation of the utrophin gene. Furthermore, this increase in transcriptional activity in response to agrin resulted from a greater number of myonuclei expressing the 1.3-kilobase pair utrophin promoter-nlsLacZ construct. Deletion of 800 base pairs 5' from this fragment decreased the basal levels of nlsLacZ expression and abolished the sensitivity of the utrophin promoter to exogenously applied agrin. In addition, site-directed mutagenesis of an N-box motif contained within this 800-base pair fragment demonstrated its essential contribution in this regulatory mechanism. Finally, direct gene transfer studies performed in vivo further revealed the importance of this DNA element for the synapse-specific expression of the utrophin gene along multinucleated muscle fibers. These data show that both muscle and neural isoforms of agrin can regulate expression of the utrophin gene and further indicate that agrin is not only involved in the mechanisms leading to the formation of clusters containing presynthesized synaptic molecules but that it can also participate in the local regulation of genes encoding synaptic proteins. Together, these observations are therefore relevant for our basic understanding of the events involved in the assembly and maintenance of the postsynaptic membrane domain of the neuromuscular junction and for the potential use of utrophin as a therapeutic strategy to counteract the effects of Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
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