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Mech Dev. 2008 Aug;125(8):687-99. doi: 10.1016/j.mod.2008.04.006. Epub 2008 May 1.

Ret isoform function and marker gene expression in the enteric nervous system is conserved across diverse vertebrate species.

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Division of Molecular Neurobiology, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, The Ridgeway, Mill Hill, London NW7 1AA, UK.


The enteric nervous system (ENS) derives from migratory neural crest cells that colonize the developing gut tube, giving rise to an integrated network of neurons and glial cells, which together regulate important aspects of gut function, including coordinating the smooth muscle contractions of the gut wall. The absence of enteric neurons in portions of the gut (aganglionosis) is the defining feature of Hirschsprung's disease (HSCR) and has been replicated in a number of mouse models. Mutations in the RET tyrosine kinase account for over half of familial cases of HSCR and mice mutant for Ret exhibit aganglionosis. RET exists in two main isoforms, RET9 and RET51 and studies in mouse have shown that RET9 is sufficient to allow normal development of the ENS. In the last several years, zebrafish has emerged as a model of vertebrate ENS development, having been supported by a number of demonstrations of conservation of gene function between zebrafish, mouse and human. In this study we further analyse the potential similarities and differences between ENS development in zebrafish, mouse and human. We demonstrate that zebrafish Ret is required in a dose-dependent manner to regulate colonization of the gut by neural crest derivatives, as in human. Additionally, we show that as in mouse and human, zebrafish ret is produced as two isoforms, ret9 and ret51. Moreover, we show that, as in mouse, the Ret9 isoform is sufficient to support colonization of the gut by enteric neurons. Finally, we identify zebrafish orthologues of genes previously identified to be expressed in the mouse ENS and demonstrate that these genes are expressed in the developing zebrafish ENS, thereby identifying useful ENS markers in this model organism. These studies reveal that the similarities between gene expression and gene function across vertebrate species is more extensive than previously appreciated, thus supporting the use of zebrafish as a general model for vertebrate ENS development and the use of zebrafish genetic screens as a way to identify candidate genes mutated in HSCR cases.

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