The vinculin gene codes for a cytoskeletal protein, found in focal adhesion plaques and in cell-cell adherens junctions. Vinculin was inactivated by homologous recombination using a targeting vector in embryonic stem (ES) cells. The heterozygous ES cells were introduced into mice by established procedures to produce heterozygous animals that were normal and fertile. No homozygous vinculin-/- embryos were born and analyses during the gestational period showed that the vinculin null embryos were small and abnormal from day E8 but some survived until E10. The most prominent defect was lack of midline fusion of the rostral neural tube, producing a cranial bilobular appearance and attenuation of cranial and spinal nerve development. Heart development was curtailed at E9.5, with severely reduced and akinetic myocardial and endocardial structures. Mutant embryos were 30-40% smaller, somites and limbs were retarded and ectodermal tissues were sparse and fragile. Fibroblasts (MEF) isolated from mutant embryos were shown to have reduced adhesion to fibronectin, vitronectin, laminin and collagen compared to wild-type levels. In addition, migration rates over these substrata were two-fold higher and the level of focal adhesion kinase (FAK) activity was three-fold higher. We conclude that vinculin is necessary for normal embryonic development, probably because of its role in the regulation of cell adhesion and locomotion, cell behaviors essential for normal embryonic morphogenesis, although specific roles in neural and cardiac development cannot be ruled out.
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