Integrin beta4 null mice exhibit extensive epidermal detachment, reminiscent of the human skin blistering disease junctional epidermolysis bullosa associated with pyloric atresia. Hemidesmosomes, the stable adhesion structures of squamous epithelia, are not formed in the absence of alpha6beta4. Null mutant mice die shortly after birth, but apart from their striking epithelial phenotype, no obvious developmental defects have been observed. To elucidate the cause of death in these mice, we generated transgenic mice with a heterologous construct consisting of the squamous epithelial-specific keratin-5 promoter and a human integrin beta4 subunit cDNA. The transgene was not expressed in the presence of endogenous beta4, probably as a result of competition for a limited pool of alpha6 subunits. In a beta4 null background, however, the transgene was expressed, and its expression pattern followed that of squamous epithelial-specific keratins. These rescued pups appeared healthy and ultrastructural analysis revealed that the interspecies heterodimer alpha6(mouse)/beta4(human) was sufficient to trigger the assembly of hemidesmosomes. After a variable period of up to 48 hours after birth these animals began to exhibit haemorrhages at the plantar and palmar areas. We observed the formation of small blisters and found that the transgene was not detectably expressed in this region, which is devoid of hair follicles. The rescued neonates became increasingly cyanotic and died soon after the onset of this phenomenon. We performed a developmental study of the expression of beta4 in the complete respiratory tract, but we found no correlation between the spatiotemporal distribution of beta4 and the onset of the respiratory insufficiency. It became clear, however, that there was a gradual detachment of squamous epithelia in the oral and nasal cavities which led to obstruction of the respiratory tract, suggesting that in beta4 null and rescued mice, neonatal death was a direct consequence of decreased adhesion properties of hairless squamous epithelia, rather than a developmental defect of the lungs.
- © 1999 by Company of Biologists