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Faculty & Research


Xinzhong Dong

Department Affiliation Primary: Neuroscience
Phone Numbers410-502-2993
School of Medicine Address725 N. Wolfe St.
Wood Basic Science Buliding, Room 906
Baltimore MD 21205
Link to Lab Homepage
Xinzhong Dong

Research Topic: Molecular and Genetic Studies of Pain-sensing Neurons

Pain is required for survival of the organism. However, chronic pain resulting from inflammation and nerve injury can seriously undermine the quality of life. Pain or nociception is mainly mediated by a subset of primary sensory neurons, known as nociceptors, in dorsal root ganglia (DRG). Our research goal is to understand molecular mechanism of pain. To achieve this goal, I started with searching mouse genes specifically expressed in nociceptors. From a very unique screen technique, I identified a large family of G protein-coupled receptor (GPCRs), called Mrgs, comprising nearly 50 members. Some of Mrgs were only found in nociceptors but not in any other tissues in the body. Interestingly, the expression of different Mrgs is largely non-overlapping in the nociceptors, suggesting that there is an unexpectedly high degree of molecular diversity among these neurons. Using mouse molecular and genetic techniques, we found that the axons of Mrg expressing nociceptors mainly innervate skin but not visceral organs. To our knowledge, this is the first marker with such a specific innervation pattern. We also isolated several neuropeptides including FMRFamide, NPFF, and g2-MSH, function as ligands for Mrgs. Some of these Mrg ligands have been implicated in regulating pain sensitivity. Furthermore, our electrophysiological data indicated that activation of Mrg by the ligand could significantly increase the excitability of Mrg-expressing nociceptors. Together these results suggested that Mrgs maybe involved in chronic pain by sensitizing nociceptors. In my laboratory, I would like to extend the studies of Mrg function in pain. My recent data shows that the endogenous ligand for Mrgs is likely expressed by skin mast cells, which are in direct contact with Mrg-expressing nerve endings in the skin. We will employ biochemical methods to purify the ligand from mouse skin mast cells and test its ability to activate Mrgs and induce pain behaviors.

To study Mrg function in vivo, we will generate several mouse lines in which a single Mrg gene or Mrg gene cluster will be deleted. We will determine whether these Mrg-deficient mice have any abnormalities in pain behaviors. Besides characterizing Mrgs, we will use recently developed genetic and molecular tools to study the cellular properties of Mrg-expressing nociceptors with respect to neuronal circuitry in central projection and pain modalities. GPCRs have been frequently used as drug targets for a variety of pharmacotherapies. Therefore, identification and functional analysis of Mrgs should open a door for the development of novel analgesics with limited side effects. Besides Mrg genes, I also isolated several novel nociceptor-specific molecules from the initial screen. Some of them encode ion channels and have very specific expression pattern similar to Mrgs. We will take the similar approaches as we did for the studies of Mrgs to characterize the functions of these genes in nociception. Our studies have shown that nociceptors are highly diverse at molecular level, and the roles of these neurons in nociception are far from understood. With nociceptor-specific genes in hand, we are in an advantageous position to combine molecular biology and genetics with animal behavior and electrophysiology to gain new insights into nociception.


Zylka MJ, Dong X, Southwell AL and Anderson DJ (2003). Atypical expansion in mice of the sensory neuron specific Mrg G protein-coupled receptor family. PNAS 100:10043-10048.
PubMed Reference

Han S, Dong X, Hwang J, Zylka MJ, Anderson DJ, and Simon MI (2002). Orphan G protein-coupled receptors MrgA1 and MrgC11 are distinctively activated by RF-amide-related peptides through the Gaq/11 pathway. PNAS 99: 14740-14745.
PubMed Reference​

Dong X, Han S, Zylka MJ, Simon MI, and Anderson DJ (2001). A diverse family of GPCRs expressed in specific subsets of nociceptive sensory neurons. Cell 106: 619-632.
PubMed Reference

Dong X, Tsuda L, Zavitz KH and Zipursky SL (1999). Ebi is a WD-repeat-containing protein required for EGF receptor signaling in Drosophila. Genes & Development 13: 954-965.
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Jackson GR, Salecker I, Dong X, Yao X, Arneim N, Faber PW, MacDonald ME and Zipursky SL (1998). Polyglutamine-expanded human Huntingtin transgenes induce degeneration of Drosophila photoreceptor neurons. Neuron 21: 633-642.
PubMed Reference

Thomas BJ, Zavitz KH, Dong X, Lane ME, Weigmann K, Lehner C, Finley R,  Brent R and Zipursky SL (1997). Roughex downregulates G2 cyclins in G1. Genes & Development 11: 1289-1298.
PubMed Reference

Dong X, Zavitz KH, Thomas BJ, Lin M, Campbell S and Zipursky SL (1997). Control of G1 in the developing Drosophila eye: rca1 regulates cyclin A. Genes & Development 11: 94-105.
PubMed Reference