Clefting of the soft palate occurs as a congenital defect in humans and adversely affects the physiological function of the palate. However, the molecular and cellular mechanism of clefting of the soft palate remains unclear because few animal models exhibit an isolated cleft in the soft palate. Using three-dimensional microCT images and histological reconstruction, we found that loss of TGFβ signaling in the palatal epithelium led to soft palate muscle defects in Tgfbr2(fl/fl);K14-Cre mice. Specifically, muscle mass was decreased in the soft palates of Tgfbr2 mutant mice, following defects in cell proliferation and differentiation. Gene expression of Dickkopf (Dkk1 and Dkk4), negative regulators of WNT-β-catenin signaling, is upregulated in the soft palate of Tgfbr2(fl/fl);K14-Cre mice, and WNT-β-catenin signaling is disrupted in the palatal mesenchyme. Importantly, blocking the function of DKK1 and DKK4 rescued the cell proliferation and differentiation defects in the soft palate of Tgfbr2(fl/fl);K14-Cre mice. Thus, our findings indicate that loss of TGFβ signaling in epithelial cells compromises activation of WNT signaling and proper muscle development in the soft palate through tissue-tissue interactions, resulting in a cleft soft palate. This information has important implications for prevention and non-surgical correction of cleft soft palate.
Keywords: Cleft soft palate; Epithelial-mesenchymal interactions; Mouse; TGFβ.