Extracellular signaling molecules provide the vertebrate inner ear with positional information at multiple stages of its development to produce the required patterns of growth and differentiation necessary for the formation of the vestibulum and cochlea, the two inner ear organs responsible for sensing, balance and sound, respectively. In previous work, we identified roles for the secreted factors, Shh and Wnt1/Wnt3a, in the polarization of the mouse otic vesicle along its dorsal-ventral axis. Our studies determined that Shh, secreted from the notochord, signals directly to ventral regions of the otic epithelium to direct the outgrowth of the cochlear duct. Whereas, Wnt1/Wnt3a, secreted from the dorsal hindbrain, signals to the dorsal otocyst to regulate vestibular morphogenesis. In addition to these early roles, Hedgehog (Hh) and Wnt/2catenin signaling pathways are also active at critical junctures later in ear development when sensory epithelial progenitors are undergoing their specification and differentiation into hair cells and support cells. We now propose to investigate the specific requirements of Wnt/2catenin and Hh signaling pathways at later stages of inner ear development in the mouse, using a conditional gene targeting strategy that inactivates essential mediators of these pathways at defined periods of cochlear and vestibular development. Our conditional gene targeting approach takes advantage of our recent finding that Wnt responsive cells originating in the dorsal otocyst extend ventrally over time and contribute to the sensory epithelium of the cochlear duct. Using a tamoxifen inducible form of cre recombinase, expressed under the transcriptional control of a Wnt responsive Top promotor (TopcreER), floxed alleles of 2catenin and Smoothened will be inactivated in sensory epithelial progenitors. Preliminary results indicate that Wnt/2catenin signaling is required for the specification and/or differentiation of hair cells and support cells in the organ of corti and cristae of the semicircular canals. Experiments in this proposal will further elaborate on the mechanisms by which Wnt/2catenin and Hh signaling pathways function to mediate sensory cell fates in the inner ear. We have also developed a genetic recombination based strategy to indelibly mark Wnt responsive cells in the dorsal otocyst in order to trace their fates over the course of inner ear development. Additional experiments described in this proposal will test the hypothesis that hair cells and support cells in the organ of corti derive from a population of Wnt responsive progenitors in the dorsal otocyst. Results from these studies should improve our fundamental understanding of sensory development in auditory and vestibular regions of the inner ear.

Public Health Relevance

The auditory and vestibular structures of the inner ear mediate our senses of hearing and balance, respectively. Progress continues to be made in identifying the causes of hereditary forms of deafness and vestibular disease in humans. Nonetheless, a detailed understanding of the genetic pathways coordinating inner ear development remains limited. By elucidating the genetic networks regulating cell fate decisions in the inner ear, our studies should not only improve our fundamental understanding of this intricate organ, but also the pathogenesis of congenital forms of deafness.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-IFCN-B (03))
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Freeman, Nancy
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University of Pennsylvania
Schools of Medicine
United States
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