Background: The vestibular apparatus of the vertebrate inner ear uses three fluid-filled semicircular canals to sense angular acceleration of the head. Malformation of these canals disrupts the sense of balance and frequently causes circling behavior in mice. The Epistatic circler (Ecl) is a complex mutant derived from wildtype SWR/J and C57L/J mice. Ecl circling has been shown to result from the epistatic interaction of an SWR-derived locus on chromosome 14 and a C57L-derived locus on chromosome 4, but the causative genes have not been previously identified.
Methodology/principal findings: We developed a mouse chromosome substitution strain (CSS-14) that carries an SWR/J chromosome 14 on a C57BL/10J genetic background and, like Ecl, exhibits circling behavior due to lateral semicircular canal malformation. We utilized CSS-14 to identify the chromosome 14 Ecl gene by positional cloning. Our candidate interval is located upstream of bone morphogenetic protein 4 (Bmp4) and contains an inner ear-specific, long non-coding RNA that we have designated Rubie (RNA upstream of Bmp4 expressed in inner ear). Rubie is spliced and polyadenylated, and is expressed in developing semicircular canals. However, we discovered that the SWR/J allele of Rubie is disrupted by an intronic endogenous retrovirus that causes aberrant splicing and premature polyadenylation of the transcript. Rubie lies in the conserved gene desert upstream of Bmp4, within a region previously shown to be important for inner ear expression of Bmp4. We found that the expression patterns of Bmp4 and Rubie are nearly identical in developing inner ears.
Conclusions/significance: Based on these results and previous studies showing that Bmp4 is essential for proper vestibular development, we propose that Rubie is the gene mutated in Ecl mice, that it is involved in regulating inner ear expression of Bmp4, and that aberrant Bmp4 expression contributes to the Ecl phenotype.