The Primary open-angle glaucoma gene WDR36
functions in ribosomal RNA processing and
interacts with the p53 stress–response pathway
Jonathan M. Skarie and Brian A. Link?
Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Received February 25, 2008; Revised and Accepted May 7, 2008
Primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG) is a genetically complex neuropathy that affects retinal ganglion cells
and is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. WDR36, a gene of unknown function, was recently identified
as causative for POAG at locus GLC1G. Subsequent studies found disease-associated variants in control
populations, leaving the role of WDR36 in this disease unclear. To address this issue, we determined the
function of WDR36. We studied Wdr36 in zebrafish and found it is the functional homolog of yeast Utp21.
Utp21 is cell essential and functions in the nucleolar processing of 18S rRNA, which is required for ribosome
biogenesis. Evidence for functional homology comes from sequence alignment, ubiquitous expression, sub-
cellular localization to the nucleolus and loss-of-function phenotypes that include defects in 18S rRNA pro-
cessing and abnormal nucleolar morphology. Additionally, we show that loss of Wdr36 function leads to an
activation of the p53 stress–response pathway, suggesting that co-inheritance of defects in p53 pathway
genes may influence the impact of WDR36 variants on POAG. Although these results overall do not provide
evidence for or against a role of WDR36 in POAG, they do provide important baseline information for future
Glaucomas are a heterogeneous group of blinding neuropa-
thies that result in retinal ganglion cell (RGC) death, visual
field deficits and optic nerve atrophy (1). They are currently
a leading cause of blindness worldwide, and estimates
predict 60 million people will be diagnosed with the disease
by 2010 (2). The most prevalent form of glaucoma is
primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG), the incidence of
which increases with advancing age (3). POAG is a complex
disease, with multiple genetic and environmental factors inter-
acting to cause disease (1,4,5). High intraocular pressure (IOP)
is the greatest risk factor for developing glaucoma, and is
thought to result from defects in aqueous humor drainage
within the anterior segment of the eye. It is unknown
exactly how elevated IOP impacts POAG. Currently, the
most accepted hypothesis is that elevated pressure in the
anterior chamber of the eye is translated to the posterior
chamber, creating stress at the optic nerve head and, ulti-
mately, resulting in death of RGCs (6–11). Though high
IOP is the most common risk factor, it is not required for
the development of POAG. About one-third of cases occur
in normal tension patients (IOP , 22 mmHg) (12). Together,
this suggests that glaucoma can result from insults to the drai-
nage structures in the anterior chamber and/or from intrinsic
defects in RGCs (1).
Determining the genetic risk factors of POAG has been an
area of intense study, but the complex nature of the disease
has made the search very difficult (13). Through human
genetic screens, at least 20 loci have been found that link to
POAG, but causative genes have only been reported for
three (13). These genes are MYOCILIN, OPTINEURIN and
WDR36. Genetically, both MYOCILIN and OPTINEURIN
have been well established in influencing POAG, but the
endogenous functions of these proteins as well as the exact
mechanism by which they cause disease are unknown (1).
MYOCILIN is the causative gene at locus GLC1A, and is
associated with high IOP cases of POAG (13,14). MYOCILIN
is expressed at high levels in trabecular meshwork cells, and it
is thought that disease causing mutations result in cellular
?To whom correspondence should be addressed at: Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Medical College of Wisconsin, 8701
Watertown Plank Road BSB 405, Milwaukee, WI 53226, USA. Tel: þ1 4144568072; Fax: þ1 4144566517; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16
Advance Access published on May 10, 2008
dysfunction as a result of blocked secretion and ectopic
meshwork cells result in raised IOP, which then contributes
to glaucoma. OPTINEURIN is the causative gene at locus
GLC1E and was found to cause normal-tension POAG (21).
Genetic studies in a variety of populations revealed that
some initially described disease-causing mutations are also
found in normal individuals (22). This indicates that OPTI-
NEURIN causes POAG when in permissive backgrounds,
and acts as a key modifier in others (1). In cultured cells,
OPTINEURIN can act to regulate apoptosis through inter-
actions with tumor necrosis factor-alpha, but it is unknown
how this occurs and whether this contributes to the apoptotic
RGC cell loss found in POAG (23–26).
WDR36 encodes a protein of unknown function that was
recently described as a causative gene for adult-onset POAG
andnarrowed agenetic linkage to5q22.1(GLC1G) (27–29).In
segregate with all affected family members and not with any
unaffected individuals (27). Further analysis of 17 unrelated
patients with either high- or low-tension POAG revealed a
total of four amino acid changes that were not found in 200
control individuals (27). When other groups extended the study
of WDR36 to different populations, the relationship between
WDR36 and glaucoma appeared more complex. Originally
described disease-causing variants have been found in control
individuals with an equal frequency as patients with POAG
(30–33). Although these data indicate that WDR36 is not causa-
tive for POAG in all populations, recent studies suggest that
WDR36 may act as a modifier of the disease. Hauser et al. (30)
found correlations between WDR36 variants and POAG severity
in POAG pedigrees. Additional genetic association studies have
also found a higher frequency of rare WDR36 variants in glau-
coma patients compared with controls, and have suggested that
WDR36 variants may contribute to a small number of unrelated
glaucoma cases (32,34,35). Taken together, the current genetic
data suggest that WDR36 may act as a modifier of POAG, and/
or as a causative gene for POAG in certain populations. Alterna-
tively, WDR36 variants may simply mark certain disease haplo-
types and not be directly involved in POAG pathology. To
better understand the role of WDR36 in POAG, determining its
function and manipulating the gene in animal models are
crucial. Although the function of WDR36 is unclear, it is
known that it is a 100 kDa protein containing four conserved
protein domains: a guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G-beta)
WD40 repeat, an AMP-dependant synthetase and ligase, a cyto-
specific WD40-associated domain (27). In human and mouse
tissues, WDR36 is widely expressed, and it was also found to be
upregulated during human T-cell proliferation (27,36).
In this study, we use zebrafish to determine the function of
Wdr36, the homolog of human WDR36, and investigate the
affected cellular signaling pathways for its involvement in
POAG. We show that Wdr36 is functionally homologous to
the yeast Utp21, a component of the rRNA processome, and
is involved in 18S rRNA processing and nucleolar homeosta-
sis. We further show that wdr36 loss of function results in acti-
vation of the p53 stress–response pathway, consistent with
disrupted nucleolar function.
WDR36 shares sequence homology to yeast Utp21
To gain insight into the cellular function of vertebrate
WDR36, BLASTp analysis using human WDR36 was
carried out against Drosophila melanogaster (Dm), Caenor-
habditis elegans (Ce) and Sacchaormyces cerevisiae (Sc)—
organisms with extensive protein function data. The closest
related proteins in each species were: Dm, AAK93538
(NP_650284); Ce, Y45F10D.7 (NP_502661); Sc, Utp21
(NP_013513) (37,38). Of the homologous proteins identified,
only the putative yeast ortholog, Utp21, was studied. It was
found that this protein is part of the yeast rRNA small-subunit
(SSU) processome and is essential for 18S rRNA maturation
(38,39). Human WDR36 shares 24% identity with yeast
Utp21. Subsequent protein alignments revealed that Utp21
and zebrafish Wdr36 share 25% identity, whereas human
WDR36 and zebrafish Wdr36 share 64% identity. To test
the hypothesis that vertebrate Wdr36 is the functional
homolog of yeast Utp21, we explored the expression and cel-
lular consequences of loss of Wdr36 function in zebrafish.
wdr36 is ubiquitously expressed
hybridization. Similar to that reported for human and mouse,
RT–PCR analysis suggested that zebrafish wdr36 is ubiquitous
as transcripts were detected in all embryonic and adult tissues
assayed (Fig. 1) (27). It also indicated that wdr36 is maternally
contributed (Fig. 1). Zebrafish embryos do not begin zygotic
transcription until the 512-cell stage, and instead rely on a
large supply of maternal protein and transcripts for early devel-
hybridization when the alkaline phosphatase reporter reaction
was allowed to develop for longer periods of time (data not
shown). Interestingly, shorter reporter reaction times showed
enrichment of wdr36 transcripts within tissues undergoing
high levels of proliferation (Fig. 1). Tissues with the greatest
levels included the developing eye cup, proliferative zones
within the CNS and cells throughout the gut (Fig. 1). Within
the eye, as differentiation progressed, high levels of gene
expression were maintained in the lens and retinal periphery
where growth is ongoing. These results indicate that wdr36 is
ubiquitously expressed, but is enriched in proliferative cells
Wdr36 fusion proteins localize to the nucleolus
To investigate the sub-cellular localization of Wdr36, we
expressed various epitope-tagged versions of Wdr36 within
multiple cell types in zebrafish embryos. Fusion protein
expression was driven by an inducible heat shock promoter
(hsp70) in an attempt to control the protein levels. Following
heat shock induction, epitope-tagged Wdr36 localized to both
the cytoplasm and nucleoli (Fig. 2). Multiple epitope tags (N-
and C-terminus 6X-myc or YFP) all showed equivalent localiz-
ations. Nucleolar localization was confirmed by co-expressing
with either Histone2A fusions, which localize to chromatin
but not the nucleolus, or with B23, which specifically labels
Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 162475
the nucleolus (Fig. 2). In general, Wrd36 fusions first localized
to nucleoli and then, as protein levels rose, became more
enriched in the cytoplasm.
To study the function of Wdr36 in vivo, a zebrafish line with a
viral insert in the wdr36 gene was utilized (wdr36hi3630aTg).
This recessive mutant was identified in a forward genetic
screen for essential genes (40). The viral insert in the wdr36
mutant was found within the first exon, about 40 nucleotide
zygous for the insert showed no phenotypic differences from
wild-type (WT) siblings during development in any assays per-
formed. Homozygous viral insert mutants (wdr36 mutants)
showed a reduction in wdr36 transcript, but not a total loss, as
assessed by semi-quantitative RT–PCR (Fig. 3B). We were
not able to determine protein levels as our attempts to generate
specific antibodies failed. wdr36 mutants do not show visible
phenotypes until ?3.5 days post-fertilization (dpf) at which
point affected embryos are characterized by smaller heads and
eyes. These phenotypes progress during development and by
6 dpf the small head and eye phenotypes are obvious compared
with WT siblings (Fig. 3C). The other profound ocular pheno-
type is a lens opacity that presents with variable penetrance
(Fig. 3C). Additionally, an obvious gut phenotype, including
liver necrosis and absence of swim bladder inflation, develops
by 6 dpf (Fig. 3C). Histological analysis of the eye at 5 dpf
showed only subtle phenotypes. Although cellular differen-
tiation and lamination of the retina appeared normal, a thicken-
ing of the lens epithelium was found and presumably accounts
for the lens opacity. The proliferative margin of the retina also
appeared to be reduced in the wdr36 mutant embryos. Other
than these subtle defects and smaller size, no other ocular
abnormalities were found. Consistent with gross inspection of
the embryo, histology of gut structures showed severe differen-
tiation defects in the liver, pancreas and intestine (Fig. 6A, data
not shown). All phenotypes progressively worsen and the
embryos die by 11 dpf. Lethality is most likely due to defects
in the gut organs. At 10 dpf, the eyes of mutants are very
small compared with WTs, and a pin-hole pupil is present. His-
tology revealed progressive and severe lens degeneration,
accounting for the dysmorphic pupil (Fig. 3D). Additionally,
at this late stage of pathogenesis, the retina showed signs of
degeneration, with thinning of all retinal layers and presence
of dying cells with pyknotic nuclei (Fig. 3D).
To confirm the specificity of the phenotypes observed in the
wdr36 mutant embryos and to provide additional tools for
against wdr36. Two non-overlapping MOs were designed;
one targeting the start ATG codon to disrupt translation and
one targeting the junction of exon 2:intron 2 to disrupt spli-
cing. Both MOs gave identical phenotypes, and RT–PCR indi-
cated that splicing of wdr36 was disrupted by the second MO
(Fig. 4A). Morphant embryos were also very similar to wdr36
genetic mutants, confirming that the collective phenotypes
result from loss of wdr36 (Fig. 4B). The only clear difference
observed between wrd36 morphants and wdr36 mutants was
(MOs) were designed
Figure 1. Expression of wdr36. (A) Expression analysis by RT–PCR showed
wdr36 transcript was present at all embryonic stages and in all adult tissues
analyzed, including maternal (Mat) contributions. (B) By in situ hybridization,
highly proliferative tissues showed enrichment of wdr36. At 18 hpf, enriched
expression was found in the eye, CNS and somites. At 24 hpf, intense
expression localized to the eye, the midbrain–hindbrain boundary in the
CNS and the gut. Thin sections of the eye showed high levels of expression
in the developing lens (arrow) and ciliary marginal zone (CMZ). Enriched
expression continued to become restricted at 48 hpf. In ocular tissue at 72
and 96 hpf, enriched expression is localized to the CMZ (arrows).
Figure 2. Sub-cellular localization of Wdr36. (A) Expression of Wdr36-YFP
and Histone2A-mCherry indicated localization of Wdr36–YFP to the cyto-
plasm and a sub-nuclear structure void of chromatin. (B) Three co-expression
examples (i–iii) of Wdr36-YFP and B23-RFP, a nucleolar marker.
Co-localization of Wdr36-YFP and B23-RFP was found within the nucleolus.
Variable levels of cytoplasmic and nucleolar Wdr36-YFP expression were
2476 Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16
that the phenotypes showed slightly earlier in development
when using MOs. With ATG MO injection, the small eye
and head phenotypes were detected by 36 hpf. At 48 hpf, a
delay in retinal lamination was observed by histology, along
with phenotypes similar to wdr36 mutant embryos (Fig. 4C).
For example, the later onset lens degeneration was also
observed at 8 dpf in wdr36 morphants (Fig. 4C).
The WDR36 variants associated with disease are inherited in
a heterozygous manner, opening the possibility that disease
may be caused by haploinsufficiency (27,30). To begin to
address this possibility, we characterized eyes from adult het-
erozygous wdr36–insert fish. Overall appearance of heterozy-
gous eyes, or the fish in general, did not differ from WT.
Similarly, there were no changes in retinal histology
between adult heterozygotes versus WT eyes (Fig. 3E). To
explore whether more subtle defects occurred in the eyes of
wdr36–insert heterozygotes, we measured gap43 and c1q
levels by real-time RT–PCR. Transcription of gap43 is upre-
gulated in zebrafish RGCs following axotomy or optic nerve
crush, and c1qc is upregulated in optic neuropathies including
glaucoma (41–44). Both genes were found to be expressed at
low levels and no change in expression was found between
wdr36–insert heterozygote and WT eyes for either gene
(data not shown). Finally, no indications of increased IOP
were noted in wdr36–insert heterozygotes, as judged by
measuring corneal thickness and eye size to body length
ratio, which can be affected with changes in IOP.
Defects in 18S rRNA processing with loss of wdr36
To test whether wdr36 is functionally homologous to yeast
utp21, we investigated the processing of 18S rRNA following
Figure 3. wdr36 viral insert mutant phenotypes. (A) Schematic of the first
three exons of wdr36 showing location of viral insert, start codon and
primers used to assess transcript. (B) Analysis of wdr36 transcript in
mutants by RT–PCR. Complete loss of transcript was found when amplifying
across the viral insert (primers F1-R). Transcripts were still present when
amplifying downstream of insert (F2-R), but levels were reduced. ef1a was
used as a loading control. (C) Gross phenotype of 6 dpf wdr36 mutants and
WT siblings. Small head and eye phenotypes were found, along with
defects in gut development. Note the absence of an inflated swim bladder.
Lens opacity was also observed with incident light illumination of the eye.
(D) Histological examination of the eye during development. At 5 dpf,
wdr36 mutant eyes were small but look grossly normal. Only a slight thicken-
ing of the lens epithelium and a reduced ciliary margin zone (CMZ) were
observed. Mutant phenotypes progress during development, and at 8 dpf
clear defects in the lens and CMZ remained. By 10 dpf, mutant larva
showed severe lens degeneration and thinning of the retina, along with cells
containing pyknotic nuclei. (E) Representative histological sections from 6--
month-old heterozygous wdr36–insert and WT sibling fish. No gross differ-
ences between the two conditions are observed.
Figure 4. wdr36 morphant phenotypes. (A) RT–PCR analysis comparing
wdr36 transcript from wdr36 morphants and WT embryos. Reduced amounts
of transcript are found following injection of the splice blocking MO. (B)
Gross phenotypes of wdr36 morphants compared with control morphants and
WT embryos at 48 hpf. A small head and eye phenotype were observed,
similar to wdr36 mutants. (C) Histological analysis at 48 hpf revealed a delay
in lamination. Like in the mutant, phenotypes were also progressive, as shown
by the lens degeneration observed at 8 dpf in the wdr36 morphant.
Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16 2477
loss of Wdr36. rRNA is transcribed as a large 35S pre-rRNA
transcript. The transcript undergoes a series of enzymatic clea-
vages within the nucleolus by large nucleo-protein complexes
resulting in mature 18S, 5.8S and 25S rRNAs (45). 18S rRNA
is utilized for the production of the small ribosomal subunit,
and 5.8S and 25S rRNAs are used for the large subunit. The
first cleavage steps in 35S rRNA processing separate the imma-
ture 18S rRNA from the 5.8 and 25S rRNAs. Distinct proces-
somes for large and small subunit rRNAs then complete the
maturation steps. The SSU processome, of which Utp21 is a
ration. After production in the nucleolus, mature subunits are
transported to the cytoplasm where they are utilized for ribo-
some assembly. This process has been well studied in yeast,
but in vertebrates the exact order of cleavage events has been
found to vary across species. An outline of 18S maturation in
using a probe against 18S rRNA, was carried out to investigate
rRNA processing in wdr36 mutants and morphants. This probe
recognizes both the mature and immature transcripts, as well as
the intermediate forms of 18S rRNA. The presence of the pre-
trols (Fig. 5B). In contrast, high levels of the immature forms of
18S rRNA was observed in wdr36 mutant and morphant
embryos, but products from later maturation steps and the
mature 18S rRNA were greatly reduced (Fig. 5B). This result
shows a defect at one or more steps in the maturation of 18S
rRNA following loss of wdr36, consistent with Wdr36 being
the functional homolog of Utp21.
Nucleolar morphology is disrupted with loss of wdr36
To address whether the observed defects in 18S rRNA proces-
sing had an effect on the nucleolus, histological sections of
retinal neurons, intestinal epithelia and liver cells from
wdr36 mutants and morphants were analyzed at high magnifi-
cations. In these tissues, the nucleolus appeared large and dys-
morphic with loss of Wdr36 compared with controls (Fig. 6A).
To confirm these findings, nucleolar morphology was analyzed
by transmission electron microscopy. Again, Wdr36-deficient
nucleoli were enlarged, dysmorphic and often less electron
dense compared with WT control cells (Fig. 6B).
Loss of wdr36 results in activation of the p53
It is well documented that disruption of nucleolar morphology
and ribosome biogenesis results in activation of the p53
stress–response pathway (47). When the nucleolus is dis-
rupted, activated ADP-ribosylating factors (Arfs) and free
ribosomal proteins are released from the nucleus into the cyto-
plasm. Once in the cytoplasm, these proteins interact with
Mdm2. The normal function of Mdm2 is to bind, ubiquinate
and maintain p53 in an inactive state. When Mdm2 interacts
with free nucleolar proteins released following disruption of
the nucleolus, Mdm2 no longer inhibits p53. The resultant
activation of p53 can then promote transcription of itself
along with pro-apoptotic and/or cell cycle arrest genes. To
address whether a p53 stress–response was activated with
loss of wdr36, we first investigated whether expression of
p53 and its target genes were altered following loss of
Wdr36. Semi-quantitative and real-time quantitative RT–
PCR showed that while p53 transcripts were present, the
levels were not different between control and Wdr36-deficient
embryos (Fig. 7A and B). However, a truncated isoform of
p53, D113p53, was significantly upregulated in wdr36
mutants and morphants as shown by semi-quantitative and
quantitative RT–PCR (Fig. 7A and B). The D113p53
isoform results from an alternate start site in the fourth
intron and lacks part of the DNA-binding domain (48,49).
The corresponding human isoform, D133p53, causes upregula-
tion of cell cycle arrest genes but acts in a dominant-negative
fashion to block induction of pro-apoptotic transcripts (49).
This was previously confirmed in the zebrafish def mutant,
which displays hypoplastic digestive organs (48). In def
mutants, markers of cell cycle arrest were transcriptionally
upregulated, but markers of apoptosis were not. We found
similar results after loss of Wdr36. The cyclin-dependent
kinase inhibitor p21 was significantly upregulated, whereas
the pro-apoptotic gene bax was not altered with the onset of
Wdr36-deficient phenotypes (Fig. 7A). Overall, these exper-
iments suggest that the p53 stress–response pathway is acti-
vated with loss of wdr36.
To probe these effects deeper, we analyzed apoptosis
directly by scoring pyknotic nuclei and the expression of acti-
vated caspase-3 immunoreactivity. No change in either indi-
cator of apoptosis was found at the onset of overt
phenotypes (data not shown). At 10 dpf, in concordance
with the observed trend toward an increase in p53, evidence
Figure 5. 18S rRNA processing in wdr36 mutants. (A) Model of 18S rRNA
processing in zebrafish and location of the probe used for the northern blot.
(B) Representative northern blot of 18S rRNA processing in 6 dpf wdr36
mutants and WTs. In WT, all products from immature to mature (arrow) are
found. In contrast, only larger, immature transcripts were recovered from
mutant embryos. A probe-recognizing ef1a was used as a loading control.
2478Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16
of apoptosis was found by both measures (data not shown). In
contrast, defects in cell cycle regulation were found in wdr36
MOs at the onset of overt phenotypes. Propidium iodide
fluorescent-activated cell sorting (FACS) (DNA content),
BrdU labeling (S-phase) and phospho-Histone H3 [late G2/
M-phase] analyses were used to probe changes in the cell
cycle. At 36 hpf, FACS analysis showed that Wdr36-deficient
embryos had disproportionately greater percentage of cells in
S-phase (Fig. 7C). Furthermore, long-pulse BrdU-labeling
confirmed the FACS results and suggested that in addition to
changes in cell cycle kinetics, cell cycle exit was also
delayed within the retina. Altered cell cycle exit was indicated
by the presence of proliferating cells in the wdr36 morphant
central retina at 58 hpf (Fig. 7D). At this time in WT
retinas, proliferation was restricted to the ciliary marginal
zone (CMZ; Fig. 7D). A delay in cell cycle withdrawal was
confirmed by observing increased M-phase cells by phospho-
Histone H3 analysis (Fig. 7E).
Finally, to address the dependence of these stress responses
on p53 function, we measured p53, D113p53, p21, and bax
expression by quantitative RT-PCR in wdr36 morphants that
also were depleted of either p53 isoform. This was accom-
plished by co-injecting one-cell stage embryos with wdr36
MO and one of two previously described p53 MOs; one that
targets the ATG start codon (p53 ATG MO), which will
only disrupt the translation of full-length p53 protein, and a
second splice-disrupting MO targeting the intron 4–exon 5
boundary (p53EI5), which will affect both full-length and
D113p53 proteins (48,50). In these experiments, we found
Figure 7. Activation of the p53 stress–response pathway with loss of Wdr36.
(A) Semi-quantitative RT–PCR analysis of p53, D113p53, p21 and bax in
48 hpf wdr36 morphants versus control morphants and WTs. No changes
were found in the levels of p53 or bax transcripts. Increased transcript
levels were observed for both D113p53 and p21. ef1a was used as a loading
control. (B) Quantitative RT–PCR analysis of p53 and D113p53 transcript
levels in wdr36 mutants and morphants at specified ages. Moderately
increased p53 levels were found only in 10 dpf wdr36 mutants. Increased
D113p53 levels were found in both mutants and morphants at all ages
assayed. Error bars show standard error of the mean (?P , 0.02 versus
control, Student’s t-test). (C) FACS analysis of cell cycle phases after
Wdr36 loss. No change in the cell cycle was found at 24 hpf. At 36 hpf,
wdr36 morphants showed a significant increase in the percentage of cells in
S-phase. (P , 0.03; Students t-test). (D) BrdU labeling of cells in S-phase
after a 10 h pulse from 48 to 58 hpf. In control embryos, proliferating cells
were limited to the CMZ, while in the wdr36 morphants more proliferating
cells were present overall and were located throughout the retina. (E) phospho-
Histone H3 staining of cells in M-phase. Proliferating cells in controls were
localized to the CMZ, while more immunoreactive cells were found and
were located across the retina in the wdr36 morphants. (F) Quantitative
RT–PCR analysis of p53, D113p53, p21 and bax in 48 hpf wdr36 morphants
þ/2 p53 MOs versus control morphants. No changes in p53 or bax transcript
levels were found in any condition. The levels of both D113p53 and p21 tran-
script levels were increased in wdr36 morphants, but this increase was par-
tially rescued by co-injection of p53 ATG MO and fully rescued with
co-injection of p53 EI5 MO. Error bars show standard error of the mean
(?P , 0.02 versus control, Student’s t-test).
Figure 6. Nucleolar morphology following loss of Wdr36. (A) Light
microscopy of liver cells from 6 dpf wdr36 mutants and WTs, and CMZ
cells from 2 dpf wdr36 morphants and WTs. Note that with loss of Wdr36,
nucleoli were larger, less in number per cell and were more centrally
located compared with WT controls. (B) TEM images of nucleoli (arrows)
from multiple cell types after loss of Wdr36 versus controls. Within the per-
ipheral retina, mutant nucleoli in retinal ganglion cells were large and dys-
morphic, while mutant nucleoli from the central retina were more normal in
appearance. CMZ, ciliary marginal zone; POM, periocular mesenchyme;
RGC, retinal ganglion cell.
Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 162479
that the induction of both D113p53 and p21 caused by loss of
Wdr36 was dependent on p53 function. Knockdown of full-
length p53 alone partially rescued these stress–response
genes to control levels, while co-depletion of both p53 iso-
forms completely prevented their induction (Fig. 7F).
In this study, a function for the POAG gene identified at locus
GLC1G, WDR36, was determined. This is the first POAG gene
currently identified for which a clear function has been
described. The two previously discovered genes, MYOCILIN
and OPTINEURIN, have both been extensively studied, but
no endogenous function has yet been determined.
Wdr36 functions in 18S rRNA processing
We have provided evidence that WDR36 functions in the pro-
cessing of 18S rRNA. BLAST studies and protein alignments
have shown that WDR36 is structurally homologous to yeast
Utp21, which is part of the SSU processome. In yeast, this pro-
cessome is essential for the maturation of 18S rRNA, and thus
ribosome biogenesis (39). Evidence for Wdr36 as the func-
tional homolog of Utp21 comes from data showing tissue dis-
Ribosome biogenesis is an essential process, so ubiquitous
expression of 18S rRNA processing genes is expected. Pre-
vious evidence of widespread expression in mouse and
human tissues (27), along with data presented here of
expression patterns by both RT–PCR and in situ hybridiz-
ation, shows that wdr36 is ubiquitously expressed. Further,
enrichment in highly proliferative tissues was observed, con-
sistent with an increased demand for ribosome biogenesis in
At the sub-cellular level, Utp21 is localized to the nucleo-
lus, the site of rRNA processing in the cell (38). Fusion pro-
teins showed that Wdr36 also localizes to the nucleolus in
vertebrate cells. YFP-tagged Wdr36 was found in this sub-
compartment of the nucleus, as demonstrated by co-expression
studies with the chromatin maker Histone2A, and a known
nucleolar component, B23. Supporting these findings, mass
spectrometry analysis of nucleoli isolated from cultured
human cells showed WDR36 to be a component of this struc-
ture (http://www.lamondlab.com/NOPdb/) (51). Along with
nucleolar localization, the epitope-tagged Wdr36 fusion pro-
teins also showed strong cytoplasmic expression. Potentially,
this may be a consequence of over-expression or epitope
tagging. Alternatively, endogenous Wdr36 may also reside
within the cytoplasm, similar to other nucleolar proteins (52).
Overall, our studies also do not rule out the possibility of
additional functions for Wdr36. Some nucleolar proteins are
known to have functions outside of ribosome biogenesis and
these proteins also localize in the cytoplasm (47). For
example, there is evidence that nucleolar components can
directly influence the cell cycle and that proteins such as
B23 and rRNA processing factors, re-localize to structures
within the cytoplasm during mitosis (47).
The loss-of-function phenotypes described in this study
provide evidence that Wdr36 is the functional homolog of
Utp21. A wdr36 viral insert mutant shows defects in highly
proliferative tissues; the eye, CNS and gut. These defects are
consistent with the enriched expression in proliferating
tissues observed by in situ hybridization and a higher need
for ribosome biogenesis with cell expansion. MO knockdown
of Wdr36 shows equivalent phenotypes as the mutants, con-
firming that these defects are due to loss of Wdr36. Informa-
tively, both mutants and morphants showed disrupted 18S
rRNA processing. Northern blot analysis indicated a strong
reduction in processed 18S rRNA products and accumulation
of larger immature pre-RNAs. In addition, both wdr36
mutant and morphant embryos show disrupted nucleolar mor-
phology. These data suggest that the accumulation of unpro-
cessed rRNAs within the nucleolus causes the enlarged
The results we have presented here are consistent with
WDR36 being the functional homolog of Utp21, a component
of the SSU processome and a protein involved in 18S rRNA
processing. While an essential role for human WDR36 in
rRNA processing is implicated by our experiments, the exact
function that WDR36 plays within the processome is not
clear. WDR36 contains nine WD40 repeat domains, which
commonly facilitate protein–protein interactions. WDR36
may be necessary for structural integrity of the processome
complex and/or have a necessary enzymatic function. The
yeast work done to date on Utp21 does not offer any further
insight. Utp21 was identified as part of the SSU processome
by showing physical interaction with components of the
complex, but its specific function was not probed (38).
It is surprising that disrupting a component of such a cell
essential process does not result in earlier, more severe pheno-
types. The maternal expression of wdr36 provides one possi-
bility for the mild early phenotypes. WT wdr36 transcripts
and perhaps protein derived from the WT allele of the
wdr36 heterozygotic parent likely enables the mutant
embryo to survive early development. It is not until after the
WT maternal supplies are lost by degradation or diluted
during cell divisions that phenotypes can be observed. This
interpretation is suggested from observations within the devel-
oping retina, where earlier-born cells within the central retina
show a more normal nucleolar morphology than later-born
neurons at the periphery or in actively proliferating cells of
the ciliary margin. This also explains the observed earlier phe-
notypes found with the ATG MO, which will block translation
of both maternal and zygotic mRNA, although it still will not
affect maternal protein.
Activation of the p53 stress–response pathway
after loss of Wdr36
Activation of the p53 stress–response pathway after disrup-
tions in nucleolar morphology is well documented (47). We
show that in wdr36 mutants and morphants, the p53 stress–
response pathway is also activated. With loss of Wdr36
during embryogenesis, the disruption in nucleolar homeostasis
results in significant upregulation of the truncated form of p53,
D113p53. It has previously been reported that this isoform
results in an arrest of the cell cycle, and may also act to
2480Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16
block p53-mediated apoptosis (48,49). Consistently, the loss
of Wdr36 initially results in delayed cell cycle progression,
without cell death. This response, versus one including apop-
tosis, may be advantageous during development by giving
embryos a chance to recover from a transient stress. With
loss of Wdr36, however, stress caused by nucleolar defects
is not transient, and the classic p53 stress–response, including
apoptosis, appears to occur. Evidence for a direct role of the
p53 stress pathways in gene expression caused by Wdr36
deficiencies was found by blocking p53 using MOs. While
complete molecular recovery of the phenotypes was found,
the gross appearance of the wdr36 morphant embryos was
not significantly affected by co-injection of either p53 MO.
To address whether maternal stores of p53 protein—which
would not be affected by the MOs—were preventing pheno-
type rescue, wdr36 MO was also injected into embryos from
an incross of p53M214K/M214Kzebrafish (53). These fish are
homozygous for a non-functional p53 allele and are thus not
able to maternally contribute WT p53. Again, no change in
phenotype versus WT embryos injected with wdr36 MO was
noted. Together, this suggests that either alternate stress path-
ways are activated, or simply the inability to establish func-
tional proteintranslation machinery
observed gross phenotypes.
Wdr36 and disease
The evidence that we have presented, that WDR36 is import-
ant for 18S rRNA processing, leads to the question whether
WDR36 is the POAG causative (or modifying) gene at locus
GLC1G? The possibility of a gene encoding an essential and
pathogenesis-like POAG, is surprising, but is not without pre-
cedence. For example, four pre-mRNA splicing factors have
recently been identified as causative for certain types of auto-
somal dominant retinitis
retina-specific blinding disorder in humans (54–57). In
addition, mutations in essential nucleolar, 18S rRNA proces-
sing genes, such as RPS19 and dyskerin, have been shown
to cause tissue-specific human disease (58–60). If WDR36
does play a role in POAG, it likely occurs in a permissive
genetic context, much like the case with OPTENEURIN.
This is not surprising given the complex nature of POAG. In
line with this possibility, we have shown that Wdr36 interacts
with p53; a key regulator of the apoptotic pathway. In POAG,
it is established that RGCs are lost because of apoptosis
(61,62). Genetic studies have been conducted to assess
whether a direct relationship between p53 genetic variants
and POAG exists, but, like other genes implicated in POAG,
different studies have yielded somewhat contradictory results
(63–66). Our data showing an interaction of p53 and
WDR36 suggest that variants in these genes could potentially
synergize in POAG pathogenesis. It may be that genetic
changes in each gene alone do not cause disease, but when
co-inherited, RGCs are at a higher risk for apoptosis, particu-
larly when stressed by elevated IOP or other factors. Consist-
ent with this concept, WDR36 has already been suggested to
Overall, the functional evidence we have presented lays essen-
tial groundwork to address these issues, but does not answer
whether WDR36 is involved in POAG. Genetic studies have
shown that associated variants are present in a heterozygous
state, suggesting disease may be caused by haploinsufficiency,
dominant negative activities or possibly through a gain of
function mechanism (27,30). Our initial results with heterozy-
gous wdr36 mutants suggest that haploinsufficiency of WDR36
alone is not sufficient for disease. Further studies determining
the effects of disease-associated variants on the normal func-
tion of WDR36 will be necessary to address how and if
WDR36 may influence POAG.
In conclusion, we have shown that WDR36 functions in
18S rRNA processing. Loss of Wdr36 in zebrafish leads to
proliferation defects in the eye and other tissues, as well as
severe dysgenesis of lens. At the cellular level, loss of
Wdr36 disrupts 18S rRNA maturation and leads to nucleolar
morphology defects resulting in activation of the p53 stress–
response pathway. The results from this study provide basis
for further research to determine whether WDR36 variants
are in fact involved in POAG.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Whole-mount in situ hybridization
A 563 bp fragment of the zebrafish wdr36 gene was amplified
by PCR with the following primers: F: 50-TGCAGACTA
TGAGCCGACTG-30and R: 50-TAATACGACTCACTATAGG
GCGACTTGGGCCAGGTCAAAATCT-30. The R primer
includes a T7 RNA polymerase promoter (shown in italics).
This PCR product was used as a template for cRNA probe
generation. cRNA probes were produced and whole-mount
in situ hybridization was conducted as described previously
(67,68). Ten to fifteen embryos, treated with 0.003% phe-
nylthiourea (PTU), were analyzed in each in situ experiment,
PTU inhibits melanin synthesis. For post-hybridization sec-
tioning, embryos were fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde/PBS
and infiltrated with 15% sucrose, 30% sucrose and then
100% Tissue-Tek OCT (Miles Inc., Elkhart, IN, USA).
Embryos were oriented in a freezing mold and 10 mm sections
were cut on a cryostat and mounted on gelatin-coated glass
Quantitative and semi-quantitative RT–PCR
Total RNA was extracted from either single zebrafish embryos
using 100 ml TRIZOL reagent (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA,
USA) and 1 ml 10 mM glycogen (Roche, Indianapolis, IN,
USA) or from pools of 10–50 embryos using the RNeasy
Plus Mini Kit (Qiagen, Valencia, CA, USA). cDNA was pro-
duced using 0.25–1.0 mg of RNA with the SuperScript III
Reverse Transcriptase enzyme (Invitrogen). Semi-quantitative
PCR was done using Amplitaq Gold (Roche). qPCRs were
carried out using the iQ SYBR Green Supermix (Bio-Rad,
Hercules, CA, USA) on the iCycler iQ Real-Time Detection
samples were assayed in triplicate for each primer set. ef1a
was used for normalization. Data were analyzed using the
DDCt method (69). Primers are listed in Table 1.
Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 162481
Table 1. Primer, construct and morpholino details
Gene (gene ID)Primer nameSeq: 50–30
Product size (bp) Ref.
Semi- and qRT–PCR primers
wdr 36 F2 (with wdr36 R)
D113p53 F (use with p53 R) ATATCCTGGCGAACATTTGG
p21 R1 (semi-quant)GCAGCTCAATTACGATAAAGA
p21 R2 (qPCR) CGGAATAAACGGTGTCGTCT
bax R1 (semi-quant) TTGCGAATCACCAATGCTGTG
bax R2 (qPCR) TCGGCTGAAGATTAGAGTTGTTT
308 This study
Fusion protein primers
wdr36 GW F
wdr36 GW R
B23 GW F
B23 GW R
b23 (npm1) (266985)
Both wdr36 and b23 were cloned into a gateway compatible destination vector containing 6X UAS with C-term epitope tags
H2A-mCherry construct produced using the following clones from the Tol2kit: 50entry no. 234, 30entry no. 302 into destination clone no. 394
NameAmount used/embryoSeq: 50–30
wdr36 ATG4–8 ng TCGCCAGCACAATCTTAATCTTCGC
wdr36 exon2–intron 3 14 ng GTACTGAATCCTACTTACTGACTGC
p53 ATG10 ng GCGCCATTGCTTTGCAAGAATTG
p53 Exon-Intron 5 10 ngAAAATGTCTGTACTATCTCCATCCG
¼to experimental MO
From gene toolsCCTCTTACCTCAGTTACAATTTATA
Human Molecular Genetics, 2008, Vol. 17, No. 16
Generation of fusion proteins and sub-cellular localization
C-terminally tagged versions of Wdr36, B23 and H2A were
generated using the Gateway Clonase II system (Invitrogen)
and tol2-based vectors were modified for Gateway recombina-
tions (70). Constructs were generated with primers and vectors
found in Table 1. The final constructs were co-injected either
with a plasmid containing Gal4 under the control of the ef1a
promoter or into the HSP70–Gal4 transgenic zebrafish line.
Constructs were injected into 1–4-cell embryos as described
above. Injected HSP70–Gal4 tg embryos were subjected to
a 30 min incubation at 378C at 24 hpf to activate Gal4
expression and consequently the UAS promoter to drive
fusion protein expression. Embryos were imaged from 24 to
48 hpf by confocal microscopy.
Transmission electron microscopy and histological analysis
Histological specimens for light microscopy were processed as
described previously (71). In brief, embryos were fixed in
primary fixative [2% paraformaldehyde, 2.5% glutaraldehyde,
3% sucrose, 0.06% phosphate buffer (pH 7.4)] at 48C for 24 h
and then washed in 0.1 M PBS, dehydrated through an ethanol
series and propylene oxide and then infiltrated with EMbed-
812/Araldyte resin mixture. Semi-thin plastic sections were
cut with a glass knife on a JB4 microtome and stained with
1% toluidine blue in 1% borax. For transmission electron
microscopy, an additional fixation in 1.0% osmium was
included, followed by dehydration in MeOH/Aralhydrate.
Embryos were then embedded in EMBed-812/DER 736.
Ultrathin sections (60–70 nm) were collected on coated
grids and stained with uranyl acetate and lead citrate for con-
trast. Images were captured using Hitachi H600 transmission
Two MOs were designed against wdr36: one to block mRNA
splicing and one to block translation. The wdr36 MOs and pre-
viously described MOs against p53 isoforms were ordered
from Gene Tools (Corvallis, OR, USA) (48,50). A list of
MOs used is given in Table 1. MOs were resuspended in
water and injected into one- to two-cell stage embryos using
a Nanoject II injector (Drummond Scientific, Broomall,PA,
Analysis of adult phenotypes
Both eyes from three adult wdr36 heterozygous and three WT
siblings were dissected and used for expression analysis by
qRT–PCR as described earlier. Primers used are listed in
Table 1. To determine the body length to eye ratio, the
lengths of four adult fish from each group were measured
from tip of mouth to beginning of the tail by ruler and eye
size was determined using morphometric analysis (Meta-
Morph Software, Molecular Devices, Sunnyvale, CA, USA)
of dorsal view images, using the same ruler for calibration.
These measures were then divided to obtain the ratio of eye
size: body length and groups were compared by Student’s
t-test. Corneal thickness was determined by using morpho-
metric analysis (MetaMorph) to measure the width of
corneas from histological sections of three eyes from each
group. For each fish, five different sections were measured
and averaged before comparison was made across fish.
Groups were then compared by Student’s t-test.
Northern blot analysis of rRNA processing
Total RNA was isolated as described earlier. One microgram
of total RNA was separated on 1% agarose–formaldehyde
gels and capillary transferred with 20? SSC onto positively
charged nylon membranes (Roche). Blots were analyzed
using the DIG Northern Starter Kit following the manufac-
turer’s protocol (Roche). A plasmid previously described con-
taining the 18S target sequence was generously provided by
the Dawid Lab (NICHD, NIH) and used to make DIG-labeled
probes against 18S rRNA (46). An 815 bp fragment of ef1a
was PCR amplified, TA cloned into the pCRII-TOPO vector
(Invitrogen) and used to make the DIG-labeled control
probe. Probes were produced as per manufactures recommen-
dation with 1 mg of linearized plasmid (Roche, DIG Northern
Starter Kit). Primers to amplify ef1a: 50-TGATCTACAAAT
FACS DNA CONTENT ANALYSIS
Cell cycle/DNA content was analyzed as described previously
(72). Approximately 30–40 whole embryos at specified stages
were pooled, washed with E3 solution (5 mM NaCl, 0.17 mM
KCl, 0.33 mM
CaCl2, 0,33 mM
DMEMþ10% serum and disaggregated on ice. Cells were
serially passed through 105 and 40 mm filters, washed with
1X PBS, stained with 0.05 mg/ml propidium iodide and
RNase treated. Three pools of embryos for each condition
and time point were assayed independently. FACS analysis
was done on a FACS Calibur (Becton-Dickinson, San Jose,
CA, USA) and analyzed using Modfit LT software (Verity
Software House, Topsham, ME, USA).
We thank Michael Walter, PhD for informative and helpful
discussions; Igor Dawid, PhD and Adam Amsterdam, PhD
for reagents; Pat Cliff and Melissa Reske for technical
support; the MCW Flow Cytometry Core Facility and Clive
Wells, PhD of the MCW EM Core Facility.
Conflict of Interest statement. None declared.
National Institutes for Health (R01EY16060 to B.A.L.,
F30AG029763 to J.M.S., and T32 EY014537—Research
Training Program in Vision Science to J.M.S.).
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