Mutation in the clarin-1 gene (Clrn1) results in loss of hearing and vision in humans (Usher syndrome III), but the role of clarin-1 in the sensory hair cells is unknown. Clarin-1 is predicted to be a four transmembrane domain protein similar to members of the tetraspanin family. Mice carrying null mutation in the clarin-1 gene (Clrn1(-/-)) show loss of hair cell function and a possible defect in ribbon synapse. We investigated the role of clarin-1 using various in vitro and in vivo approaches. We show by immunohistochemistry and patch-clamp recordings of Ca(2+) currents and membrane capacitance from inner hair cells that clarin-1 is not essential for formation or function of ribbon synapse. However, reduced cochlear microphonic potentials, FM1-43 [N-(3-triethylammoniumpropyl)-4-(4-(dibutylamino)styryl) pyridinium dibromide] loading, and transduction currents pointed to diminished cochlear hair bundle function in Clrn1(-/-) mice. Electron microscopy of cochlear hair cells revealed loss of some tall stereocilia and gaps in the v-shaped bundle, although tip links and staircase arrangement of stereocilia were not primarily affected by Clrn1(-/-) mutation. Human clarin-1 protein expressed in transfected mouse cochlear hair cells localized to the bundle; however, the pathogenic variant p.N48K failed to localize to the bundle. The mouse model generated to study the in vivo consequence of p.N48K in clarin-1 (Clrn1(N48K)) supports our in vitro and Clrn1(-/-) mouse data and the conclusion that CLRN1 is an essential hair bundle protein. Furthermore, the ear phenotype in the Clrn1(N48K) mouse suggests that it is a valuable model for ear disease in CLRN1(N48K), the most prevalent Usher syndrome III mutation in North America.
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