Nephronophthisis (NPH) is an autosomal recessive disorder characterized by renal fibrosis, tubular basement membrane disruption and corticomedullary cyst formation leading to end-stage renal failure. The disease is caused by mutations in NPHP1-9 genes, which encode the nephrocystins, proteins localized to cell–cell junctions and centrosome/primary cilia. Here, we show that nephrocystin mRNA expression is dramatically increased during cell polarization, and shRNA-mediated knockdown of either NPHP1 or NPHP4 in MDCK cells resulted in delayed tight junction (TJ) formation, abnormal cilia formation and disorganized multi-lumen structures when grown in a three-dimensional collagen matrix. Some of these phenotypes are similar to those reported for cells depleted of the TJ proteins PALS1 or Par3, and interestingly, we demonstrate a physical interaction between these nephrocystins and PALS1 as well as their partners PATJ and Par6 and show their partial co-localization in human renal tubules. Taken together, these results demonstrate that the nephrocystins play an essential role in epithelial cell organization, suggesting a plausible mechanism by which the in vivo histopathologic features of NPH might develop.

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