Characterization of ethanol-induced effects on zebrafish retinal development: Mechanistic perspective and therapeutic strategies

Pooja Muralidharan, Purdue University


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a result of prenatal alcohol exposure, producing a wide range of defects including craniofacial, sensory, motor and cognitive deficits. Many ocular abnormalities are frequently associated with FASD including microphthalmia, optic nerve hypoplasia, and cataracts. FASD is highly prevalent in low socioeconomic populations, where it is also accompanied by higher rates of malnutrition and alcoholism. Using zebrafish as a model to study FASD retinal defects has been extremely insightful in understanding the ethanol-induced retinal defects at the cellular level. Zebrafish embryos treated with ethanol from mid-blastula transition through somitogenesis (2-24 hours post fertilization; hpf) showed defects similar to human ocular deficits including microphthalmia, optic nerve hypoplasia, and photoreceptor differentiation defects. Ethanol exposure altered critical transcription factor expression involved in retinal cell differentiation. Retinoic acid (RA) and folic acid (FA) nutrient co-supplementation rescued optic nerve and photoreceptor differentiation defects. Ethanol exposure during retinal morphogenesis stages (16-24 hpf), produced retinal defects like those seen with ethanol exposure between 2-24 hpf. Significantly, during ethanol-sensitive time window (16-24 hpf), RA co-supplementation moderately rescued these defects, whereas, FA cosupplementation showed significant rescue of optic nerve and photoreceptor differentiation. RA, but not FA, supplementation after ethanol exposure could restore ethanol-induced optic nerve and photoreceptor differentiation defects. Ethanol exposure did not affect timing of retinal cell differentiation induction, but later increased retinal cell death and proliferation. Ethanol-treated embryos showed increased retinal proliferation in the outer nuclear layer (ONL), inner nuclear layer (INL), and ciliary marginal zone (CMZ) at 48 hpf and 72 hpf. In order to identify the genesis of ethanol-induced persistent retinal defects, ethanol effects on retinal stem cell populations in the CMZ and the Müller glial cells (MGCs) were examined. Ethanol treated retinas had an expanded CMZ indicated by histology and Alcama, a retinal stem cell marker, immunolabeling, but reduced expression of rx1 and the cell cycle exit marker, cdkn1c. Ethanol treated retinas also showed reduced MGCs. At 72 hpf, ONL of ethanol exposed fish showed fewer photoreceptors expressing terminal differentiation markers. Importantly, these poorly differentiated photoreceptors co-expressed the basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) proneural differentiation factor, neurod, indicating that ethanol exposure produced immature and undifferentiated photoreceptors. Reduced differentiation along with increased progenitor marker expression and proliferation suggest cell cycle exit failure due to ethanol exposure. These results suggested that ethanol exposure disrupted stem cell differentiation progression. Wnt, Notch and proneural gene expression regulate retinal stem cell proliferation and transition into progenitor cells. Ethanol exposure disrupted Wnt activity in the CMZ as well as Notch activity and neurod gene expression in the retina. RA and FA co-supplementation were able to rescue Wnt activity in the CMZ and rescue downstream Notch activity. To test whether the rescue of these Wnt-active cells could restore the retinal cell differentiation pathways, ethanol treated embryos were treated with Wnt agonist. This treatment could restore Wnt-active cells in the CMZ, Notch-active cells in the retina, proliferation, and photoreceptor terminal differentiation. We conclude that ethanol exposure produced persistent defects in the stem cell Wnt signaling, a critical pathway in retinal cell differentiation. Further analysis of underlying molecular mechanisms will provide insight into the embryonic origins of ethanol-induced retinal defects and potential therapeutic targets to cure this disorder.




Marrs, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Cellular biology|Developmental biology

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