Apoptosis plays a major role in the development of the central nervous system. Previous studies of apoptosis induction during retinal development are difficult to interpret, however, because they explored different mouse strains, different developmental periods, and used different assays. Here, we first established a comprehensive sequential pattern of cell death during the whole development of the C57BL/6J mouse retina, from E10.5 to postnatal day (P) 21 by using the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) -mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate (dUTP)-biotinylated nick end labeling (TUNEL) assay. We confirmed the existence of three previously described apoptotic peaks and identified another, later peak at P15, in both the outer nuclear layer, in which the photoreceptors differentiate, and the ganglion cell layer. Comparison of wild-type C57BL/6 mice, gld mice, defective in the death ligand fasL, and bax-/- mice, defective in the pro-apoptotic BAX protein, revealed a minor role for FAS ligand but a crucial role for BAX in both apoptosis and normal retinal development. The lack of BAX resulted in thicker than normal inner neuroblastic and ganglion cell layers in adults, with larger numbers of cells and an impaired electroretinogram response related to a decreased number of responsive cells. Our findings indicate that cell death during normal retinal development is important for the modeling of a functional vision organ and showed that the pro-apoptotic BAX protein plays a crucial role in this process.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.