Alex M. Zimmer, Yihang K. Pan, Theanuga Chandrapalan, Raymond W. M. Kwong, and Steve F. Perry

Loss-of-function technologies, such as morpholino- and RNAi-mediated gene knockdown, and TALEN- and CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene knockout, are widely used to investigate gene function and its physiological significance. Here, we provide a general overview of the various knockdown and knockout technologies commonly used in comparative physiology and discuss the merits and drawbacks of these technologies with a particular focus on research conducted in zebrafish. Despite their widespread use, there is an ongoing debate surrounding the use of knockdown versus knockout approaches and their potential off-target effects. This debate is primarily fueled by the observations that, in some studies, knockout mutants exhibit phenotypes different from those observed in response to knockdown using morpholinos or RNAi. We discuss the current debate and focus on the discrepancies between knockdown and knockout phenotypes, providing literature and primary data to show that the different phenotypes are not necessarily a direct result of the off-target effects of the knockdown agents used. Nevertheless, given the recent evidence of some knockdown phenotypes being recapitulated in knockout mutants lacking the morpholino or RNAi target, we stress that results of knockdown experiments need to be interpreted with caution. We ultimately argue that knockdown experiments should not be discontinued if proper control experiments are performed, and that with careful interpretation, knockdown approaches remain useful to complement the limitations of knockout studies (e.g. lethality of knockout and compensatory responses).

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