Skeletal syndromes are among the most common birth defects. Vertebrate skeletogenesis involves two major cell types: cartilage-forming chondrocytes and bone-forming osteoblasts. In vitro, both are under the control of retinoic acid (RA), but its exact in vivo effects remained elusive. Here, based on the positional cloning of the dolphin mutation, we have studied the role of the RA-oxidizing enzyme Cyp26b1 during cartilage and bone development in zebrafish. cyp26b1 is expressed in condensing chondrocytes as well as in osteoblasts and their precursors. cyp26b1 mutants and RA-treated wild-type fish display a reduction in midline cartilage and the hyperossification of facial and axial bones, leading to fusions of vertebral primordia, a defect not previously described in the context of RA signaling. Fusions of cervical vertebrae were also obtained by treating mouse fetuses with the specific Cyp26 inhibitor R115866. Together with data on the expression of osteoblast markers, our results indicate that temporal and spatial restriction of RA signaling by Cyp26 enzymes is required to attenuate osteoblast maturation and/or activity in vivo. cyp26b1 mutants may serve as a model to study the etiology of human vertebral disorders such as Klippel-Feil anomaly
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