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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Mar 8;102(10):3846-51. Epub 2005 Feb 24.

Loss of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase 4 (MEKK4) results in enhanced apoptosis and defective neural tube development.

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Section of Immunobiology, Department of Neurobiology and Kavli Institute of Neuroscience, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


Neural tube defects (NTDs) are prevalent human birth defects. Mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), such as c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), are implicated in facilitating neural tube closure, yet upstream regulators remain to be identified. Here, we show that MAP kinase kinase kinase 4 (MEKK4) is strongly expressed in the developing neuroepithelium. Mice deficient in MEKK4 develop highly penetrant NTDs that cannot be rescued by supplementation with folic acid or inositol. Unlike most mouse models of NTDs, MEKK4 mutant embryos display genetically co-segregated exencephaly and spina bifida, recapitulating the phenotypes observed in human patients. To identify downstream targets of MEKK4 during neural tube development, we examined the activity of MAP kinase kinase 4 (MKK4), a signaling intermediate between MAP kinase kinase kinase and JNK/p38. We found a significant reduction in MKK4 activity in MEKK4-deficient neuroepithelium at sites of neural tube closure. MAPK pathways are key regulators of cell apoptosis and proliferation. Analyses of the neuroepithelium in MEKK4-deficient embryos showed massively elevated apoptosis before and during neural tube closure, suggesting an antiapoptotic role for MEKK4 during development. In contrast, proliferation of MEKK4-deficient neuroepithelial cells appeared to be largely unaffected. MEKK4 therefore plays a critical role in regulating MKK4 activity and apoptotic cell death during neural tube development. Disruption of this signaling pathway may be clinically relevant to folate-resistant human NTDs.

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