A large-scale study of DMDD data  has shown that inactivating the same gene in mouse embryos that are virtually genetically identical can result in a wide range and severity of physical abnormalities. This suggests that the relationship between gene mutation and embryo development is more complex than previously thought.
The article ‘Highly variable penetrance of abnormal phenotypes in embryonic lethal knockout mice‘ was published in Wellcome Open Research.
REVEALING THE DETAILED EFFECTS OF GENE MUTATION
The study considered 220 mouse embryos, each with one of 42 different genes inactivated. These genes are part of a set known as ‘embryonic lethal’, because they are so crucial to development that an embryo missing any one of them can’t survive to birth. Studying these genes can help us understand how embryos develop, why some miscarry and why some mutations can lead to abnormalities.
Each embryo was scanned in minute detail, meaning that even the smallest differences in features could be identified – right down to the level of whether the structures of individual nerves, muscles and small blood vessels were abnormal. It was also possibe to see whether having the same, single missing gene affected all embryos in exactly the same way.
Clinicians commonly find that people with the same genetic disease can show different symptoms or be affected with differing severity. In part this is likely to be due to the fact that we all differ in our precise genetic makeup. However, the results of this study in mice shows that even when individuals have virtually identical genomes, the same mutation can lead to a variety of different outcomes amongst affected embryos.
A total of 398 different abnormalities (known as abnormal phenotypes) were observed across the 220 embryos. Surprisingly, almost none of the phenotypes were found in every embryo with the same missing gene. A phenotype that does not occur for every embryo missing a particular gene is said to have ‘incomplete penetrance’ and this phenomenon was seen regardless of how profound the abnormality was. Incompete penetrance was observed for phenotypes ranging from severe heart malformations to relatively minor defects such as the abnormal positioning of nerves.
Dr Tim Mohun, who led the study at DMDD said:
“This is a striking result, coming as it does from such a large study in which embryos have been analysed in unprecedented detail. It shows us that even with an apparently simple and well-defined mutation, the precise outcome can be both complex and variable. We have a lot to learn about the roles of these lethal genes in embryonic development to understand why this happens.”
The result was put in context by Dr Andrew Chisholm, Head of Cellular and Developmental Sciences at the Wellcome Trust, who added that “the fundamental processes driving how we develop have been conserved through evolution, which makes studying animal models enormously helpful in increasing our understanding of why some babies develop birth defects. This study throws new light on what we thought was a fairly straightforward relationship between what’s coded in our genes and how we develop. Researchers need to appreciate this added layer of complexity, as well as endeavouring to unpick the intricate processes of genetic control at play.”
All image and phenotype data gathered by the DMDD programme is freely available to the scientific community at dmdd.org.uk. Dr David Adams, Group Leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute who contributed to the work, said “this study highlights the power of genetic analyses in mice and provides an unprecedented resource of data to inform clinical genetic studies in humans.”