OBJECTIVE: Genetic variants in STXBP1, which encodes the conserved exocytosis protein Munc18-1, are associated with a variety of infantile epilepsy syndromes. We aimed to develop an in vivo Caenorhabditis elegans model that could be used to test the pathogenicity of such variants in a cost-effective manner.
METHODS: The CRISPR/Cas9 method was used to introduce a null mutation into the unc-18 gene (the C. elegans orthologue of STXBP1), thereby creating a paralyzed worm strain. We subsequently rescued this strain with transgenes encoding the human STXBP1/Munc18-1 protein (wild-type and eight different epilepsy-associated missense variants). The resulting humanized worm strains were then analyzed via behavioral, electrophysiological, and biochemical approaches.
RESULTS: Transgenic expression of wild-type human STXBP1 protein fully rescued locomotion in both solid and liquid media to the same level as the standard wild-type worm strain, Bristol N2. Six variant strains (E59K, V84D, C180Y, R292H, L341P, R551C) exhibited impaired locomotion, whereas two (P335L, R406H) were no different from worms expressing wild-type STXBP1. Electrophysiological recordings revealed that all eight variant strains displayed less frequent and more irregular pharyngeal pumping in comparison to wild-type STXBP1-expressing strains. Four strains (V84D, C180Y, R292H, P335L) exhibited pentylenetetrazol-induced convulsions in an acute assay of seizure-like activity, in contrast to worms expressing wild-type STXBP1. No differences were seen between wild-type and variant STXBP1 strains in terms of mRNA abundance. However, STXBP1 protein levels were reduced to 20%-30% of wild-type in all variants, suggesting that the mutations result in STXBP1 protein instability.
SIGNIFICANCE: The approach described here is a cost-effective in vivo method for establishing the pathogenicity of genetic variants in STXBP1 and potentially other conserved neuronal proteins. Furthermore, the humanized strains we created could potentially be used in the future for high-throughput drug screens to identify novel therapeutics.