Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time of flight mass spectrometric analysis of the pattern of peptide expression in single neurons resulting from alternative mRNA splicing of the FMRFamide gene

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MALDI-ToF MS (matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time of flight mass spectrometry) has become a fast, reliable and sensitive technique for the identification of neuropeptides in biological tissues. Here, we applied this technique to identified neurons of the cardioregulatory network in the snail Lymnaea that express the FMRFamide gene. This enabled us to study the complex processing of the FMRFamide gene at the level of single identified neurons. In the CNS of Lymnaea, FMRFamide-like and additional peptides are encoded by a common, multiexon gene. Alternate mRNA splicing of the FMRFamide gene leads to the production of two different mRNAs. Type 1 mRNA (exon II) encodes for the tetrapeptides (FLRF/FMRFamide), whereas Type 2 (exons III–V) encodes for the heptapeptides (SDPFLRFamide/GDPFLRFamide). Previous in situ hybridization and immunocytochemical studies indicated that these two transcripts are expressed in the CNS neurons of Lymnaea in a differential and mutually exclusive manner. Two single identified neurons of the cardiorespiratory network, the Ehe neuron and the visceral white interneuron (VWI), were known to express the FMRFamide gene (Ehe, type 1 mRNA; VWI, type 2 mRNA). MALDI-ToF MS analysis of these neurons and other neurons expressing the FMRFamide gene confirmed the mutually exclusive expression of the distinct sets of peptides encoded on the two transcripts and revealed the pattern of post-translational processing of both protein precursors. From the gene sequence it was predicted that 16 final peptide products from the two precursor proteins could possibly exist. We showed that most of these peptides were indeed present in the identified neurons (13) while others were not (three), suggesting that not all of the potential cleavage sites within the two precursors are utilized. In this way, the neuronal expression of the full range of the peptide products resulting from alternative mRNA splicing was revealed for the first time.

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