Unravelling the causes of a common birth defect

Mice with a mutation in the Cdon gene develop holoprosencephaly after being exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Peripheral nerves in a mouse embryo (cropped). Image credit: Nguyen Tan Tin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A common birth defect known as holoprosencephaly affects how the brain and face of a fetus develop in the womb. In many cases, the condition is so severe that the fetus dies before, or shortly after, birth. Mutations in certain genes that control how the fetus develops are associated with holoprosencephaly. For example, mutations in components of the Hedgehog and Nodal signaling pathways, which transmit information that help cells to become specialized, increase the risk that a fetus will develop holoprosencephaly. Environmental factors, such as exposure to alcohol in the womb, are also thought to contribute to this condition.

A gene known as Cdon is a component of the Hedgehog signaling pathway. In 2012, a team of researchers reported that mice with a mutation in the Cdon gene exposed to alcohol in the womb develop symptoms similar to holoprosencephaly in humans. Here, Hong et al. – including some of the researchers involved in the previous work – set out to understand how Cdon and alcohol work together to cause holoprosencephaly in the mutant mice.

First, the team exposed pregnant mice to alcohol at different times during gestation to find out when their young were sensitive to developing holoprosencephaly. This showed that the young mice were most sensitive in early pregnancy when the Nodal pathway was active in their growing bodies. Further experiments found that alcohol and mutations in Cdon change Nodal signaling in cells. Together, these findings demonstrate that exposure to alcohol in the womb works together with the mutant form of Cdon via the Nodal signaling pathway, rather than the Hedgehog pathway, to cause holoprosencephaly in mice.

The causes of many common birth defects are complex and difficult to distinguish at the level of individual cases. The work of Hong et al. illuminates how multiple risk factors during pregnancy, which may not create any problems on their own, may work together to produce birth defects in the fetus. The findings also offer new ways to understand how exposure to alcohol in the womb affects the fetus. Ultimately, understanding how birth defects form could lead to new strategies to prevent them in the future.