Retinoid-dependent pathways play a central role in regulating cardiac morphogenesis. Recently, we characterized gene-targeted RXR alpha -/- embryos, which display an atrial-like ventricular phenotype with the development of heart failure and lethality at embryonic day 14.5. To quantitate the frequency and complexity of cardiac morphogenic defects, we now use microdissection and scanning electron microscopy to examine 107 wild-type, heterozygous, and homozygous embryos at embryonic day 13.5, 14.5, and 15.5. RXR alpha -/- embryos display complex defects, including ventricular septal, atrioventricular cushion, and conotruncal ridge defects, with double outlet right ventricle, aorticopulmonary window, and persistent truncus arteriosus. In addition, heterozygous RXR alpha embryos display a predisposition for trabecular and papillary muscle defects, ventricular septal defects, conotruncal ridge defects, atrioventricular cushion defects, and pulmonic stenosis. Lastly, we show that the intermediate anatomic phenotype displayed by heterozygous embryos is mirrored in the molecular marker MLC-2a. The intermediate phenotype of RXR alpha heterozygous embryos documents a gene dosage effect for RXR alpha in maintaining normal cardiac morphogenesis. In addition, some defects in RXR alpha mutant mice are phenocopies of human congenital heart defects, thereby suggesting that a relative deficiency in RXR alpha or molecules downstream in its signaling pathway may represent congenital heart disease-susceptibility genes.
P J Gruber, S W Kubalak, T Pexieder, H M Sucov, R M Evans, K R Chien