Open Access Research article

Genetic defects of GDF6 in the zebrafish out of sight mutant and in human eye developmental anomalies

Anneke I den Hollander12, Janisha Biyanwila1, Peter Kovach1, Tanya Bardakjian3, Elias I Traboulsi4, Nicola K Ragge56, Adele Schneider3 and Jarema Malicki1*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Craniofacial and Molecular Genetics, Tufts University, 136 Harrison Ave., Boston MA 02111, USA

2 Department of Ophthalmology, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen 6525 GA, the Netherlands

3 Clinical Genetics, Albert Einstein Medical Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19141, USA

4 Center for Genetic Eye Diseases, Cole Eye Institute, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio 44195, USA

5 Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QX, UK

6 Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, EC1V 2PD, UK

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BMC Genetics 2010, 11:102  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-11-102

Published: 11 November 2010



The size of the vertebrate eye and the retina is likely to be controlled at several stages of embryogenesis by mechanisms that affect cell cycle length as well as cell survival. A mutation in the zebrafish out of sight (out) locus results in a particularly severe reduction of eye size. The goal of this study is to characterize the outm233 mutant, and to determine whether mutations in the out gene cause microphthalmia in humans.


In this study, we show that the severe reduction of eye size in the outm233 mutant is caused by a mutation in the zebrafish gdf6a gene. Despite the small eye size, the overall retinal architecture appears largely intact, and immunohistochemical studies confirm that all major cell types are present in outm233 retinae. Subtle cell fate and patterning changes are present predominantly in amacrine interneurons. Acridine orange and TUNEL staining reveal that the levels of apoptosis are abnormally high in outm233 mutant eyes during early neurogenesis. Mutation analysis of the GDF6 gene in 200 patients with microphthalmia revealed amino acid substitutions in four of them. In two patients additional skeletal defects were observed.


This study confirms the essential role of GDF6 in the regulation of vertebrate eye size. The reduced eye size in the zebrafish outm233 mutant is likely to be caused by a transient wave of apoptosis at the onset of neurogenesis. Amino acid substitutions in GDF6 were detected in 4 (2%) of 200 patients with microphthalmia. In two patients different skeletal defects were also observed, suggesting pleitrophic effects of GDF6 variants. Parents carrying these variants are asymptomatic, suggesting that GDF6 sequence alterations are likely to contribute to the phenotype, but are not the sole cause of the disease. Variable expressivity and penetrance suggest a complex non-Mendelian inheritance pattern where other genetic factors may influence the outcome of the phenotype.