PURPOSE. Pax6 is a transcription factor necessary for the specification and subsequent formation of the ocular lens. It is expressed in all lens cells at early stages of development. After lens formation, Pax6 expression is maintained in the lens epithelium, whereas its level abruptly decreases in differentiated fiber cells. This study is to test the hypothesis that normal fiber cell differentiation would be perturbed by sustained Pax6 expression. METHODS. Transgenic mice expressing the canonical form of mouse Pax6 were created under the control of a modified mouse αA-crystallin promoter. The phenotypic changes in the transgenic lens were analyzed by light and electron microscopy. The effect of ectopic Pax6 expression on the lens fiber cells was investigated by in situ hybridization, immunohistochemical staining, real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), and two-dimensional (2-D) gel electrophoresis. RESULTS. Transgenic mice from seven different lines all had cataracts with severity that correlated with the transgene expression level in lens fiber cells. In severely affected lines, a lumen was present between the apical surfaces of the epithelial and fiber cells, suggesting that secondary fiber cell elongation is incomplete. Electron microscopy analysis showed that the ball-and-socket interdigitations between neighboring fiber cells were underdeveloped or attenuated in the transgenic lens. Most interesting, elevated levels of Pax6 in fiber cells reduced the protein levels of transcription factor cMaf, which is known to be essential in fiber cell differentiation. Furthermore, the total amount of lens proteins was 60% less than normal in the Pax6 transgenic lens. Among the crystallins examined, the relative ratio of intact βB1-crystallin protein to total lens protein was significantly reduced. Real-time reverse transcriptase PCR showed that the ratio of βB1-crystallin transcript levels to total mRNA levels were reduced by 87%. CONCLUSIONS. The data demonstrate that high levels of Pax6 expression disrupt normal fiber cell differentiation and maturation.
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