Purpose: Microphthalmia, a bHLH-zip transcription factor associated with the onset and maintenance of pigmentation, identifies the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) compartment during optic vesicle and optic cup development. To determine a role for microphthalmia (mi) during eye development, the effects of an mi loss of function mutation on RPE and neural retinal were investigated in the mi/mi mouse.
Methods: A series of embryonic and postnatal mi/mi and wild-type eyes were sectioned and labeled with neural retina- and RPE cell type-specific antibodies. Photoreceptor loss was quantified by counting the number of photoreceptor nuclei spanning the outer nuclear layer throughout postnatal retinal development.
Results: Early neural retinal differentiation is not affected in the mi/mi mouse. The mi/mi ventral retinal pigment epithelial layer begins to develop normally, but does not pigment or attain a differentiated cuboidal morphology. The dorsal region of mi/mi retinal pigment epithelium expands and forms an ectopic retina, which develops all major retinal cell types along a similar time course as the wild type. After birth, mi/mi photoreceptors begin to form rosettes, outer segments fail to elongate, and over an extended time period, the retina degenerates.
Conclusions: Together these results suggest that early retinal development can proceed normally in the mi/mi mutant, but later retinal histogenesis is dependent on the presence of a differentiated retinal pigment epithelium. Most importantly, loss of mi function permits a change in cell fate from RPE to retina in the dorsal eye.