The membrane-bound metalloprotease endothelin-converting enzyme-like 1 (ECEL1) has been newly identified as a causal gene of a specific type of distal arthrogryposis (DA). In contrast to most causal genes of DA, ECEL1 is predominantly expressed in neuronal cells, suggesting a unique neurogenic pathogenesis in a subset of DA patients with ECEL1 mutation. The present study analyzed developmental motor innervation and neuromuscular junction formation in limbs of the rodent homologue damage-induced neuronal endopeptidase (DINE)-deficient mouse. Whole-mount immunostaining was performed in DINE-deficient limbs expressing motoneuron-specific GFP to visualize motor innervation throughout the limb. Although DINE-deficient motor nerves displayed normal trajectory patterns from the spinal cord to skeletal muscles, they indicated impaired axonal arborization in skeletal muscles in the forelimbs and hindlimbs. Systematic examination of motor innervation in over 10 different hindlimb muscles provided evidence that DINE gene disruption leads to insufficient arborization of motor nerves after arriving at the skeletal muscle. Interestingly, the axonal arborization defect in foot muscles appeared more severe than in other hindlimb muscles, which was partially consistent with the proximal-distal phenotypic discordance observed in DA patients. Additionally, the number of innervated neuromuscular junction was significantly reduced in the severely affected DINE-deficient muscle. Furthermore, we generated a DINE knock-in (KI) mouse model with a pathogenic mutation, which was recently identified in DA patients. Axonal arborization defects were clearly detected in motor nerves of the DINE KI limb, which was identical to the DINE-deficient limb. Given that the encoded sequences, as well as ECEL1 and DINE expression profiles, are highly conserved between mouse and human, abnormal arborization of motor axons and subsequent failure of NMJ formation could be a primary cause of DA with ECEL1 mutation.
Keywords: Axonal arborization; DINE; Distal arthrogryposis; ECEL1; Motor nerve; Neuromuscular junction.