Caspase-3 mediates retinoid-induced apoptosis in the organogenesis-stage mouse limb




Caspases are key mediators in the regulation and execution of apoptosis, a crucial part of the morphogenetic process during limb development. Caspase-8 and -9 are upstream caspases. Caspase-8 mediates the extrinsic pathway of apoptosis triggered by signaling through TNF-R1 family receptors. Caspase-9 is activated during the intrinsic pathway downstream of mitochondria. Caspase-3 is an effector caspase that initiates degradation of the cell in the final stages of apoptosis. Vitamin A is a potent teratogen that causes limb reduction defects in embryos exposed during organogenesis. Previous in vitro studies have shown that exposure of the organogenesis-stage murine limb to vitamin A results in excessive levels of apoptosis. The goal of this work was to characterize the involvement of caspase-3, -8, and -9, as well as cytochrome-c release from the mitochondria, in the apoptotic cascade induced by vitamin A.


Limb buds from gestational day 12 CD-1 mice were cultured in a chemically defined medium in the absence or presence of vitamin A. Cultures were terminated after 6 days to examine the effect of the drug on gross morphology. Apoptosis was detected by TUNEL staining after culture for 24 hr. Caspase activation was determined by Western blotting and localized by immunohistochemistry of control and treated limbs. The release of cytochrome-c into the cytoplasm was assessed by Western blotting after cell-fractionation.


Limbs cultured in the presence of vitamin A showed a dose-dependent growth reduction and dysmorphogenesis of the cartilaginous anlagen. Apoptosis was increased in the interdigital, anterior, and posterior marginal zones and in the apical ectodermal ridge. Western-blotting confirmed the presence of activated caspase-3 that increased with time in culture and vitamin A concentration. Cleaved caspase-3 immunoreactivity colocalized with TUNEL stained limb regions and increased dramatically with increasing drug concentrations. In contrast, procaspase-8 and -9 were not activated. Exposure to high concentrations of vitamin A did, however, increase cytoplasmic cytochrome-c, suggesting mitochondrial involvement.


Caspase-3 is a key effector caspase in the apoptotic pathway induced by Vitamin A. While caspases-8 and -9 are not responsible for the activation of caspase-3 in response to the drug, cytochrome-c release from mitochondria may play an upstream role. Birth Defects Research (Part A) 67:848–860, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.