Morpholino antisense oligonucleotides (MOs) are widely used as a tool to achieve loss of gene function, but many have off-target effects mediated by activation of Tp53 and associated apoptosis. Here, we re-examine our previous MO-based loss-of-function studies that had suggested that Wnt1 expressed at hindbrain boundaries in zebrafish promotes neurogenesis and inhibits boundary marker gene expression in the adjacent para-boundary regions. We find that Tp53 is highly activated and apoptosis is frequently induced by the MOs used in these studies. Co-knockdown of Tp53 rescues the decrease in proneural and neuronal marker expression, which is thus an off-target effect of MOs. While loss of gene expression can be attributed to cell loss through apoptotic cell death, surprisingly we find that the ectopic expression of hindbrain boundary markers is also dependent on Tp53 activity and its downstream apoptotic effectors. We examine whether this non-specific activation of hindbrain boundary gene expression provides insight into the endogenous mechanisms underlying boundary cell specification. We find that the pro-apoptotic Bcl genes puma and bax-a are required for hindbrain boundary marker expression, and that gain of function of the Bcl-caspase pathway leads to ectopic boundary marker expression. These data reveal a non-apoptotic role for pro-apoptotic genes in the regulation of gene expression at hindbrain boundaries. In light of these findings, we discuss the precautions needed in performing morpholino knockdowns and in interpreting the data derived from their use.
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