One of the most perplexing questions in clinical genetics is why patients with identical gene mutations oftentimes exhibit radically different clinical features. This inconsistency between genotype and phenotype is illustrated in the malformation spectrum of holoprosencephaly (HPE). Family members carrying identical mutations in sonic hedgehog (SHH) can exhibit a variety of facial features ranging from cyclopia to subtle midline asymmetries. Such intrafamilial variability may arise from environmental factors acting in conjunction with gene mutations that collectively reduce SHH activity below a critical threshold. We undertook a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that modifying the activity of the SHH signaling pathway at discrete periods of embryonic development could account for the phenotypic spectrum of HPE. Exposing avian embryos to cyclopamine during critical periods of craniofacial development recreated a continuum of HPE-related defects. The craniofacial malformations included hypotelorism, midfacial hypoplasia, and facial clefting and were not the result of excessive crest cell apoptosis. Rather, they resulted from molecular reprogramming of an organizing center whose activity controls outgrowth and patterning of the mid and upper face. Collectively, these data reveal one mechanism by which the variable expressivity of a disorder such as HPE can be produced through temporal disruption of a single molecular pathway.
Dwight Cordero, Ralph Marcucio, Diane Hu, William Gaffield, Minal Tapadia, Jill A. Helms