“Axonal Length Determines distinct homeostatic phenotypes in human iPSC derived motor neurons on a bioengineered platform”
Stem cell-based experimental platforms for neuroscience can effectively model key mechanistic aspects of human development and disease. However, conventional culture systems often overlook the engineering constraints that cells face in vivo . This is particularly relevant for neurons covering long range connections such as spinal motor neurons (MNs). The axons of these neurons extend up to 1m in length and require a complex interplay of mechanisms to maintain cellular homeostasis. It follows that shorter axons in conventional cultures may not faithfully capture important aspects of their longer counterparts. Here we directly address this issue by establishing a bioengineered platform to assemble arrays of human axons ranging from micrometers to centimeters, permitting systematic investigation of the effects of length on human axonal biology for the first time. With this approach, we reveal a link between length and metabolism in human MNs in vitro , where axons above a “threshold” size induce specific molecular adaptations in cytoskeleton composition, functional properties, local translation and mitochondrial homeostasis. Our findings specifically demonstrate the existence of a length-dependent mechanism that switches homeostatic processes within human MNs in order to sustain long axons. Our findings have critical implications for in vitro modelling of several neurodegenerative disorders and reinforce the importance of modelling cell shape and biophysical constraints with fidelity and precision in vitro .