Morphogenesis and shape of the ocular lens depend on epithelial cell elongation and differentiation into fiber cells, followed by the symmetric and compact organization of fiber cells within an enclosed extracellular matrix-enriched elastic capsule. The cellular mechanisms orchestrating these different events however, remain obscure. We investigated the role of the Rac1 GTPase in these processes by targeted deletion of expression using the conditional gene knockout (cKO) approach. Rac1 cKO mice were derived from two different Cre (Le-Cre and MLR-10) transgenic mice in which lens-specific Cre expression starts at embryonic day 8.75 and 10.5, respectively, in both the lens epithelium and fiber cells. The Le-Cre/Rac1 cKO mice exhibited an early-onset (E12.5) and severe lens phenotype compared to the MLR-10/Rac1 cKO (E15.5) mice. While the Le-Cre/Rac1 cKO lenses displayed delayed primary fiber cell elongation, lenses from both Rac1 cKO strains were characterized by abnormal shape, impaired secondary fiber cell migration, sutural defects and thinning of the posterior capsule which often led to rupture. Lens fiber cell N-cadherin/β-catenin/Rap1/Nectin-based cell-cell junction formation and WAVE-2/Abi-2/Nap1-regulated actin polymerization were impaired in the Rac1 deficient mice. Additionally, the Rac1 cKO lenses were characterized by a shortened epithelial sheet, reduced levels of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins and increased apoptosis. Taken together, these data uncover the essential role of Rac1 GTPase activity in establishment and maintenance of lens shape, suture formation and capsule integrity, and in fiber cell migration, adhesion and survival, via regulation of actin cytoskeletal dynamics, cell adhesive interactions and ECM turnover.
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