Precise spatial and temporal control of developmental genes is crucial during embryogenesis. Regulatory mutations that cause the misexpression of key developmental genes may underlie a number of developmental abnormalities. The congenital abnormality preaxial polydactyly, extra digits, is an example of this novel class of mutations and is caused by ectopic expression of the signalling molecule Sonic Hedgehog (SHH) in the developing limb bud. Mutations in the long-distant, limb-specific cis-regulator for SHH, called the ZRS, are responsible for the ectopic expression which underlies the abnormality. Here, we show that populations of domestic cats which manifest extra digits, including the celebrated polydactylous Hemingway's cats, also contain mutations within the ZRS. The polydactylous cats add significantly to the number of mutations previously reported in mouse and human and to date, all are single nucleotide substitutions. A mouse transgenic assay shows that these single nucleotide substitutions operate as gain-of-function mutations that activate Shh expression at an ectopic embryonic site; and that the sequence context of the mutation is responsible for a variable regulatory output. The plasticity of the regulatory response correlates with both the phenotypic variability and with species differences. The polydactyly mutations define a new genetic mechanism that results in human congenital abnormalities and identifies a pathogenetic mechanism that may underlie other congenital diseases.

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