We have been studying the consequences of embryonic vestibular dysfunction caused by the monolith (mnl) mutation in zebrafish. mnl is a dominant mutation that specifically inhibits formation of utricular otoliths. However, briefly immobilizing mnl/mnl embryos in agarose with the otic vesicle orientated at certain angles selectively induces or prevents formation of utricular and/or saccular otoliths. With this noninvasive technique, we generated six phenotypic classes of mnl/mnl mutants, designated S-S, U-U, U-S, S-US, U-US, and US-US, depending on which otoliths are present on each side (U, utricular otolith; S, saccular otolith). All mnl/mnl larvae survived through day 10 of development. Thereafter, S-S larvae showed a rapid decline, probably because of starvation, and none survived to adulthood. Survival rates in all other classes of mnl/mnl larvae (those having at least one utricular otolith) were close to normal. The presence or absence of utricular otoliths also correlated with vestibular function during early larval development, as measured by three criteria: First, unlike wild-type larvae, S-S mutant larvae showed almost no detectable counter-rotation of the eyes when tilted tail up or tail down. Second, 95% of S-S mutant larvae never acquired the ability to maintain a balanced dorsal-up posture. Third, although most wild-type larvae responded to gentle prodding by swimming in a straight line, S-S larvae responded by swimming in rapid circles, showing sudden and frequent changes in direction ("zigzagging"), and/or rolling and spiraling. All other phenotypic classes of mnl/mnl larvae behaved normally in these assays. These data demonstrate that bilateral loss of utricular otoliths disrupts the ability to sense gravity, severely impairs balance and motor coordination, and is invariably lethal. The presence of a utricular otolith in at least one inner ear is necessary and sufficient for vestibular function and survival. In contrast, saccular otoliths are dispensable for these functions.
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.