Alterations in GRHL2-OVOL2-ZEB1 axis and aberrant activation of Wnt signaling lead to altered gene transcription in posterior polymorphous corneal dystrophy

Exp Eye Res. 2019 Nov;188:107696. doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2019.107696. Epub 2019 Jun 21.


Mutations associated with posterior polymorphous corneal dystrophy (PPCD) have been identified in three genes: ZEB1 (zinc-finger E-box binding homeobox 1) associated with sub-type PPCD3; OVOL2 (ovol-like zinc finger 2) associated with sub-type PPCD1; and GRHL2 (grainyhead like transcription factor 2) associated with sub-type PPCD4. Each of these genes encodes a transcription factor that regulates cell-state transitions. While the discovery of these PPCD-associated genes has greatly expanded our knowledge of the genetic basis of PPCD, the molecular mechanisms via which mutations in these genes lead to indistinguishable disease phenotypes have yet to be elucidated. To characterize the gene expression profiles of the genetic sub-types of PPCD, RNA-seq was performed on corneal endothelium derived from an individual with PPCD1 who harbors a c.-307T > C OVOL2 promoter mutation. Transcriptomic analysis of this and previously-reported RNA-seq data from two individuals with PPCD (the first with PPCD3 associated with a ZEB1 truncating mutation (c.1381delinsGACGAT) and the second with genetically unresolved PPCD in which ZEB1 coding region, OVOL2 promoter and GRHL2 promoter, exon 1, and intron 1 mutations were excluded) revealed: OVOL2 expression increased in PPCD1 (259 fold), unchanged in PPCD3 and slightly increased in genetically unresolved PPCD (from 0 TPM to 0.86 TPM, undefined fold change); ZEB1 expression decreased in PPCD1 (-5.9 fold), PPCD3 (-3.95 fold) and genetically unresolved PPCD (-3.96 fold); and GRHL2 expression increased in PPCD1 (333.5 fold), slightly increased (from 0 TPM to 0.67 TPM, undefined fold change) in PPCD3 and increased in genetically unresolved PPCD (1853 fold). Additionally, as the majority of pedigrees affected with PPCD remain genetically unresolved, we screened the promoter, exon 1, and intron 1 regions of GRHL2 in 24 PPCD probands who do not harbor a ZEB1 or OVOL2 mutation. GRHL2 screening did not identify any novel or rare GRHL2 variant in these 24 individuals. As ZEB1 can act as an activator or repressor of downstream target gene expression depending on Wnt signaling pathway activation or deactivation, we also sought to determine whether or not Wnt signaling is active in PPCD by performing immunohistochemistry in corneal tissue sections derived from an individual affected with PPCD3 and from an individual with genetically unresolved PPCD. Immunohistochemistry results demonstrated corneal endothelial nuclear accumulation of S552 phos-β-catenin and cytosolic localization of S33/37/T42 non-phosphorylated β-catenin in PPCD, indicating aberrant activation of Wnt signaling, which was not observed in control corneal endothelium. These findings suggest that alterations in the ZEB1-OVOL2-GRHL2 axis (caused by PPCD-associated mutations) lead to changes in corneal endothelial cell state and molecular pathways, including the aberrant activation of the Wnt signaling pathway.

Keywords: Corneal endothelial cells; GRHL2; OVOL2; Posterior polymorphous corneal dystrophy; Wnt signaling; ZEB1; β-Catenin.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Corneal Dystrophies, Hereditary / genetics*
  • Corneal Dystrophies, Hereditary / metabolism
  • Corneal Dystrophies, Hereditary / pathology
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics*
  • Exons / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Introns / genetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Transcription Factors / genetics*
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway / physiology*
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1 / genetics*


  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • GRHL2 protein, human
  • Ovol2 protein, human
  • Transcription Factors
  • ZEB1 protein, human
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1

Supplementary concepts

  • Corneal Dystrophy, Posterior Polymorphous, 1