Hugo J. Bellen

Hugo Bellen

Professor, Baylor College of Medicine
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
March of Dimes Chair in Developmental Biology

M.B.A., University of Brussels, Belgium, 1976
D.V.M., University of Ghent, Belgium, 1983
Ph.D., University of California, Davis, 1986
Postdoc, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland, 1987-89

Mitochondria and neuronal degeneration, synaptic transmission and technology development

Mitochondria and neuronal degeneration

To understand the molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration, we performed an unbiased forward genetic screen to isolate mutants that display progressively deteriorating neuronal function. We first created a collection of 6,000 mutations on the Drosophila X-chromosome that each cause lethality when homozygous. We then induced homozygous mutant clones in the compound eye in otherwise viable heterozygous animals and recorded electroretinograms (ERGs – a measure of eye activity upon exposure to light) at days 1-3 and at days 24-30. Mutants whose ERGs progressively worsened with time were kept. This primary screening strategy was followed by a secondary screening strategy using morphology as a readout. Using Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) of the photoreceptor neurons, we documented the progressive demise of the neurons. We then mapped and assigned the mutations to complementation groups and estimate that we have isolated about 120 genes that cause a neurodegenerative phenotype when mutated. We are currently characterizing a few of these loci and are mapping many more. We hope to gain a much better understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which neurodegeneration occurs.

Synaptic Transmission

Our goal is to define the role of specific proteins in exo- and endocytosis of synaptic vesicles. These include proteins previously implicated on the basis of biochemical experiments as well as new proteins isolated through genetic screens in my lab. Through forward and reverse genetic screens, we have identified mutations in numerous genes that affect neurotransmitter release and have defined their function in vivo. By combining genetic analyses, protein localization studies, electrophysiological recordings, FM 1-43 dye uptake experiments and TEM at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), we have provided valuable insights into the function of essential synaptic proteins, including synaptotagmin, syntaxin, tweek, flower, dap160, endophilin, synptojanin, etc.

Technology development

My lab (together with Drs. Roger Hoskins and Allan Spradling) develops new tools and reagents, which we make freely available to the Drosophila community. My lab has generated more than 12,000 publicly available stocks carrying single transposable element insertions that can be imprecisely excised to create mutations. This is the most commonly used method to create mutations in fly genes using reverse genetics. Currently, insertions in ~65 percent of all fly genes are available from the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center and the Gene Disruption Project (GDP) Database. We are now expanding the size and utility of this collection by creating strains carrying a new transposable element, MiMIC (Minos Mediated Integration Cassette). MiMIC inserts preferentially in introns and allows integration of any DNA in a gene of interest based on Recombination Mediated Cassette Exchange, enhancing our ability to genetically manipulate flies. In addition, we have also created a new transgenesis platform for flies. The P[acman] (ΦC31 artificial chromosome for manipulation) vector allows integration of large DNA fragments. Based on this technology, we constructed two highly versatile, publicly available whole-genomic libraries that allow manipulation of virtually all fly genes ( They provide direct access to recombineering- and transformation-ready genomic clones that can be integrated at precise locations in the Drosophila genome. Tagged clones allow one to assess gene expression and protein distribution and to efficiently rescue mutations and deletions.

Selected Publications

Acar M, Jafar-Nejad H, Takeuchi H, Rajan A, Ibrani D, Rana NA, Pan H, Haltiwanger RS, Bellen HJ (2008) Rumi, a CAP10 domain protein, is a glycosyltransferase that modifies Notch and is required for Notch signaling. Cell 132:247-258.

Zhai RG, Zhang F, Hiesinger PR, Cao Y, Haueter CM, Bellen HJ (2008) NAD synthase NMNAT acts as a chaperone to protect against neurodegeneration. Nature 452:887-991.

Tsuda H, Han SM, Yang Y, Tong C, Lin YQ, Mohan K, Haueter C, Zoghbi A, Harati Y, Kwan J, Miller MA, Bellen HJ (2008) The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis 8 protein VAPB is cleaved, secreted, and acts as a ligand for Eph receptors. Cell 133:963-977.

Yao CK, Lin YQ, Ly CV, Ohyama T, Haueter C, Moiseenkova-Bell VY, Wensel TG, Bellen HJ (2009) A synaptic vesicle- and presynaptic membrane-associated ion channel regulates resting Ca2+ levels and synaptic endocytosis. Cell 138:947-960.

Venken KJT, Schulze KL, Haelterman NA, Pan H, He Y, Evans-Holm M, Carlson JW, Levis RW, Spradling AC, Hoskins RA, Bellen HJ (2011) MiMIC: a highly versatile transposon insertion resource for engineering Drosophila melanogaster genes. Nature Methods 8:737-743.

Tong C, Ohyama T, Tien A, Rajan A, Haueter CM, Bellen HJ (2011) rich regulates target specificity of photoreceptor cells and N-Cadherin trafficking in the Drosophila visual system via Rab6. Neuron 71:447-459.

Yamamoto S, Charng W-L, Rana NA, Kakuda S, Jaiswal M, Bayat V, Xiong B, Zhang K, Sandoval H, David G, Wang H, Haltiwanger RS, Bellen HJ (2012) A mutation in EGF repeat 8 of Notch discriminates between Serrate/Jagged and Delta family ligands. Science 338:1229-1232.

Yamamoto S, Jaiswal M, Charng W-L, Gambin T, Karaca E, Mirzaa G, Wiszniewski W, Sandoval H, Haelterman NA, Xiong B, Zhang K, Bayat V, David G, Li T, Chen K, Gala U, Harel T, Pehlivan D, Penney S, Vissers LE, de Ligt J, Jhangiani SN, Xie Y, Tsang SH, Parman Y, Sivaci M, Battaloglu E, Muzny D, Wan YW, Liu Z, Lin-Moore AT, Clark RD, Curry CJ, Link N, Schulze KL, Boerwinkle E, Dobyns WB, Allikmets R, Gibbs RA, Chen R, Lupski JR, Wangler MF, Bellen HJ (2014) A Drosophila genetic resource of mutants to study mechanisms underlying human genetic diseases. Cell 159:200-214.

Liu L, Zhang K, Sandoval H, Yamamoto S, Jaiswal M, Sanz E, Li Z, Hui J, Graham BH, Quintana A, Bellen HJ (2015) Glial lipid droplets and ROS induced by mitochondrial defects promote neurodegeneration. Cell 160:177-790.

Nagarkar Jaiswal S, Lee P-T, Campbell ME, Chen K, Anguiano-Zarate S, Cantu Gutierrez M, Busby T, Lin W-W, He Y, Schulze KL, Booth BW, Evans-Holm M, Venken KJT, Levis RW, Spradling AC, Hoskins, RA, Bellen HJ (2015) A library of MiMICs allows tagging of genes and reversible spatial and temporal knockdown of proteins in Drosophila. eLife 4:e05338.

Jaiswal M, Haelterman NA, Sandoval H, Xiong B, Donti T, Kalsotra A, Yamamoto S, Cooper TA, Graham BH, Bellen HJ (2015) Impaired mitochondrial energy production causes light induced photoreceptor degeneration independent of oxidative stress. PLoS Biology 13:e1002197.

Contact Information

Hugo J. Bellen, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Department of Molecular and Human Genetics
Baylor College of Medicine
1250 Moursund St. – NRI, Suite N1165.08
Houston, Texas 77030, U.S.A.

Lab website

Tel: (713) 798-5272
Fax: (832) 825-1240

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