Roles of the espin actin-bundling proteins in the morphogenesis and stabilization of hair cell stereocilia revealed in CBA/CaJ congenic jerker mice

PLoS Genet. 2011 Mar;7(3):e1002032. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002032. Epub 2011 Mar 24.


Hearing and vestibular function depend on mechanosensory staircase collections of hair cell stereocilia, which are produced from microvillus-like precursors as their parallel actin bundle scaffolds increase in diameter and elongate or shorten. Hair cell stereocilia contain multiple classes of actin-bundling protein, but little is known about what each class contributes. To investigate the roles of the espin class of actin-bundling protein, we used a genetic approach that benefited from a judicious selection of mouse background strain and an examination of the effects of heterozygosity. A congenic jerker mouse line was prepared by repeated backcrossing into the inbred CBA/CaJ strain, which is known for excellent hearing and minimal age-related hearing loss. We compared stereocilia in wild-type CBA/CaJ mice, jerker homozygotes that lack espin proteins owing to a frameshift mutation in the espin gene, and jerker heterozygotes that contain reduced espin levels. The lack of espins radically impaired stereociliary morphogenesis, resulting in stereocilia that were abnormally thin and short, with reduced differential elongation to form a staircase. Mean stereociliary diameter did not increase beyond ∼0.10-0.14 µm, making stereocilia ∼30%-60% thinner than wild type and suggesting that they contained ∼50%-85% fewer actin filaments. These characteristics indicate a requirement for espins in the appositional growth and differential elongation of the stereociliary parallel actin bundle and fit the known biological activities of espins in vitro and in transfected cells. The stereocilia of jerker heterozygotes showed a transient proximal-distal tapering suggestive of haploinsufficiency and a slowing of morphogenesis that revealed previously unrecognized assembly steps and intermediates. The lack of espins also led to a region-dependent degeneration of stereocilia involving shortening and collapse. We conclude that the espin actin-bundling proteins are required for the assembly and stabilization of the stereociliary parallel actin bundle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cilia
  • Cochlea / metabolism
  • Cochlea / ultrastructure
  • Female
  • Hair Cells, Auditory / metabolism*
  • Hair Cells, Auditory / ultrastructure
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred CBA
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Microfilament Proteins / genetics*
  • Microfilament Proteins / metabolism*
  • Morphogenesis / genetics*
  • Vestibule, Labyrinth / metabolism
  • Vestibule, Labyrinth / ultrastructure


  • Microfilament Proteins
  • espin protein, mouse