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Open Access Research article

Duplicate dmbx1 genes regulate progenitor cell cycle and differentiation during zebrafish midbrain and retinal development

Loksum Wong1, Cameron J Weadick2, Claire Kuo1, Belinda SW Chang123 and Vincent Tropepe13*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cell & Systems Biology, University of Toronto, 25 Harbord Street, Toronto, ON, M5S 3G5, Canada

2 Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, 25 Willcocks Street, Toronto, ON, M5S 3B2, Canada

3 Centre for the Analysis of Genome Evolution and Function, University of Toronto, 25 Willcocks Street, Toronto, ON, M5S 3B3, Canada

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BMC Developmental Biology 2010, 10:100  doi:10.1186/1471-213X-10-100

Published: 22 September 2010



The Dmbx1 gene is important for the development of the midbrain and hindbrain, and mouse gene targeting experiments reveal that this gene is required for mediating postnatal and adult feeding behaviours. A single Dmbx1 gene exists in terrestrial vertebrate genomes, while teleost genomes have at least two paralogs. We compared the loss of function of the zebrafish dmbx1a and dmbx1b genes in order to gain insight into the molecular mechanism by which dmbx1 regulates neurogenesis, and to begin to understand why these duplicate genes have been retained in the zebrafish genome.


Using gene knockdown experiments we examined the function of the dmbx1 gene paralogs in zebrafish, dmbx1a and dmbx1b in regulating neurogenesis in the developing retina and midbrain. Dose-dependent loss of dmbx1a and dmbx1b function causes a significant reduction in growth of the midbrain and retina that is evident between 48-72 hpf. We show that this phenotype is not due to patterning defects or persistent cell death, but rather a deficit in progenitor cell cycle exit and differentiation. Analyses of the morphant retina or anterior hindbrain indicate that paralogous function is partially diverged since loss of dmbx1a is more severe than loss of dmbx1b. Molecular evolutionary analyses of the Dmbx1 genes suggest that while this gene family is conservative in its evolution, there was a dramatic change in selective constraint after the duplication event that gave rise to the dmbx1a and dmbx1b gene families in teleost fish, suggestive of positive selection. Interestingly, in contrast to zebrafish dmbx1a, over expression of the mouse Dmbx1 gene does not functionally compensate for the zebrafish dmbx1a knockdown phenotype, while over expression of the dmbx1b gene only partially compensates for the dmbx1a knockdown phenotype.


Our data suggest that both zebrafish dmbx1a and dmbx1b genes are retained in the fish genome due to their requirement during midbrain and retinal neurogenesis, although their function is partially diverged. At the cellular level, Dmbx1 regulates cell cycle exit and differentiation of progenitor cells. The unexpected observation of putative post-duplication positive selection of teleost Dmbx1 genes, especially dmbx1a, and the differences in functionality between the mouse and zebrafish genes suggests that the teleost Dmbx1 genes may have evolved a diverged function in the regulation of neurogenesis.