Winkler, C., Eggert, C., Gradl, D., Meister, G., Giegerich, M., Wedlich, D., Laggerbauer, B., and Fischer, U. (2005) Reduced U snRNP assembly causes motor axon degeneration in an animal model for spinal muscular atrophy. Genes and Development. 19(19):2320-2330.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a motoneuron disease caused by reduced levels of survival motoneuron (SMN) protein. Previous studies have assigned SMN to uridine-rich small nuclear ribonucleoprotein particle (U snRNP) assembly, splicing, transcription, and RNA localization. Here, we have used gene silencing to assess the effect of SMN protein deficiency on U snRNP metabolism in living cells and organisms. In HeLa cells, we show that reduction of SMN to levels found in SMA patients impairs U snRNP assembly. In line with this, induced silencing of SMN expression in Xenopus laevis or zebrafish arrested embryonic development. Under less severe knock-down conditions, zebrafish embryos proceeded through development yet exhibited dramatic SMA-like motor axon degeneration. The same was observed after silencing two other essential factors in the U snRNP assembly pathway, Gemin2 and pICln. Importantly, the injection of purified U snRNPs into either SMN- or Gemin2-deficient embryos of Xenopus and zebrafish prevented developmental arrest and motoneuron degeneration, respectively. These findings suggest that motoneuron degeneration in SMA patients is a direct consequence of impaired production of U snRNPs.