Human Molecular Genetics
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ATR-X syndrome is a rare genetic disorder caused by mutations in the ATRX gene. Affected individuals are cognitively impaired and display a variety of developmental abnormalities, including skeletal deformities. To investigate the function of ATRX during skeletal development, we selectively deleted the gene in the developing forelimb mesenchyme of mice. The absence of ATRX in the limb mesenchyme resulted in shorter digits, or brachydactyly, a defect also observed in a subset of ATR-X patients. This phenotype persisted until adulthood, causing reduced grip strength and altered gait in mutant mice. Examination of the embryonic ATRX-null forelimbs revealed a significant increase in apoptotic cell death, which could explain the reduced digit length. In addition, staining for the DNA damage markers γ-histone 2A family member X (γ-H2AX) and 53BP1 demonstrated a significant increase in the number of cells with DNA damage in the embryonic ATRX-null forepaw. Strikingly, only one large bright DNA damage event was observed per nucleus in proliferating cells. These large γ-H2AX foci were located in close proximity to the nuclear lamina and remained largely unresolved after cell differentiation. In addition, ATRX-depleted forelimb mesenchymal cells did not exhibit hypersensitivity to DNA fork-stalling compounds, suggesting that the nature as well as the response to DNA damage incurred by loss of ATRX in the developing limb fundamentally differs from other tissues. Our data suggest that DNA damage-induced apoptosis is a novel cellular mechanism underlying brachydactyly that might be relevant to additional skeletal syndromes. © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.