nkx3.2 mutant zebrafish accommodate jaw joint loss through a phenocopy of the head shapes of Paleozoic jawless fish [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Tetsuto Miyashita, Pranidhi Baddam, Joanna Smeeton, A. Phil Oel, Natasha Natarajan, Brogan Gordon, A. Richard Palmer, J. Gage Crump, Daniel Graf, and W. Ted Allison

The vertebrate jaw is a versatile feeding apparatus. To function, it requires a joint between the upper and lower jaws, so jaw joint defects are often highly disruptive and difficult to study. To describe the consequences of jaw-joint dysfunction, we engineered two independent null alleles of a single jaw-joint marker gene, nkx3.2, in zebrafish. These mutations caused zebrafish to become functionally jawless via fusion of the upper and lower jaw cartilages (ankylosis). Despite lacking jaw joints, nkx3.2 mutants survived to adulthood and accommodate this defect by: a) having a remodelled skull with a fixed open gape, reduced snout, and enlarged branchial region; and b) performing ram feeding in the absence of jaw-generated suction. The late onset and broad extent of phenotypic changes in the mutants suggest that modifications to the skull are induced by functional agnathia, secondarily to nkx3.2 loss-of-function. Interestingly, nkx3.2 mutants superficially resemble ancient jawless vertebrates (anaspids and furcacaudiid thelodonts) in overall head shapes. Because no homology exists in individual skull elements between these taxa, the adult nkx3.2 phenotype is not a reversal, but convergence due to similar functional requirements of feeding without moveable jaws. This remarkable analogy strongly suggests that jaw movements themselves dramatically influence the development of jawed vertebrate skulls. Thus, these mutants provide a unique model with which to: a) investigate adaptive responses to perturbation in skeletal development; b) re-evaluate evolutionarily inspired interpretations of phenocopies generated by gene knockdowns and knockouts; and c) gain insights into feeding mechanics of the extinct agnathans.

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