Mutations in the human SIX3 gene in holoprosencephaly are loss of function

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Holoprosencephaly (HPE) is the most common developmental anomaly of the human forebrain; however, the genetics of this heterogeneous and etiologically complex malformation is incompletely understood. Heterozygous mutations in SIX3, a transcription factor gene expressed in the anterior forebrain and eyes during early vertebrate development, have been frequently detected in human HPE cases. However, only a few mutations have been investigated with limited functional studies that would confirm a role in HPE pathogenesis. Here, we report the development of a set of robust and sensitive assays of human SIX3 function in zebrafish and apply these to the analysis of a total of 46 distinct mutations (19 previously published and 27 novel) located throughout the entire SIX3 gene. We can now confirm that 89% of these putative deleterious mutations are significant loss-of-function alleles. Since disease-associated single point mutations in the Groucho-binding eh1-like motif decreases the function in all assays, we can also confirm that this interaction is essential for human SIX3 co-repressor activity; we infer, in turn, that this function is important in HPE causation. We also unexpectedly detected truncated versions with partial function, yet missing a SIX3-encoded homeodomain. Our data indicate that SIX3 is a frequent target in the pathogenesis of HPE and demonstrate how this can inform the genetic counseling of families.

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