Whole-transcriptome changes in gene expression accompany aging of sensory neurons in Aplysia californica

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Background: Large-scale molecular changes occur during aging and have many downstream consequences on whole-organism function, such as motor function, learning, and memory. The marine mollusk Aplysia californica can be used to study transcriptional changes that occur with age in identified neurons of the brain, because its simplified nervous system allows for more direct correlations between molecular changes, physiological changes, and their phenotypic outcomes. Behavioral deficits in the tail-withdrawal reflex of aged animals have been correlated with reduced excitation in sensory neurons that control the reflex. RNASeq was used to investigate whole-transcriptome changes in tail-withdrawal sensory neurons of sexually mature and aged Aplysia to correlate transcriptional changes with reduced behavioral and physiological responses. Results: Paired-end sequencing resulted in 210 million reads used for differential expression analysis. Aging significantly altered expression of 1202 transcripts in sensory neurons underlying the tail-withdrawal reflex, with an approximately equal number of these genes up- and down regulated with age. Despite overall bidirectionality of expression changes, > 80% of ion channel genes that were differentially expressed had decreased expression with age. In particular, several voltage-gated K+ and Ca2+ channels were down regulated. This marked decrease in ion channel expression may play an important role in previously observed declines in aged sensory neuron excitability. We also observed decreased expression of genes and pathways involved in learning and memory. Genes involved in the stress response showed increased expression in aged Aplysia neurons. Conclusions: Significantly altered expression of many genes between sexually mature and aged Aplysia suggests large molecular changes that may impact neuronal function. Decreased ion channel mRNA observed could mean fewer receptors present in aged neurons, resulting in reduced excitability of PVC sensory neurons, ultimately leading to reduced tail-withdrawal reflex observed in aged Aplysia. Significant changes in other genes and pathways, such as stress response and learning and memory, have previously been shown to occur with age in many vertebrate organisms. This suggests that some effects of aging are common across many animal phyla.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number529
JournalBMC genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 11 2018


  • NMDA
  • Pleural ganglion
  • Transcriptomics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Genetics


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