Disease or malformation of heart valves is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in both children and adults. These congenital anomalies can remain undetected until cardiac function is compromised, making it important to understand the underlying nature of these disorders. Here we show that ephrin-A1, a ligand for class A Eph receptor tyrosine kinases, regulates cardiac valve formation. Exogenous ephrin-A1-Fc or overexpression of ephrin-A1 in the heart inhibits epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation (EMT) in chick atrioventricular cushion explants. In contrast, overexpression of wild-type EphA3 receptor promotes EMT via a kinase-dependent mechanism. To analyze ephrin-A1 in vivo, we generated an ephrin-A1 knockout mouse through gene targeting. Ephrin-A1 null animals are viable but exhibit impaired cardiac function. Loss of ephrin-A1 results in thickened aortic and mitral valves in newborn and adult animals. Analysis of early embryonic hearts revealed increased cellularity in outflow tract endocardial cushions and elevated mesenchymal marker expression, suggesting that excessive numbers of cells undergo EMT. Taken together, these data indicate that ephrin-A1 regulates cardiac valve development, making ephrin-A1-deficient mice a novel model for congenital heart defects.
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