Previous studies have identified a single amino-acid substitution in the transcriptional regulator Pax-1 as the cause of the mouse skeletal mutant undulated (un). To evaluate the role of Pax-1 in the formation of the axial skeleton we have studied Pax-1 protein expression in early sclerotome cells and during subsequent embryonic development, and we have characterized the phenotype of three different Pax-1 mouse mutants, un, undulated-extensive (unex) and Undulated short-tail (Uns). In the Uns mutation the whole Pax-1 locus is deleted, resulting in the complete absence of Pax-1 protein in these mice. The other two genotypes are interpreted as hypomorphs. We conclude that Pax-1 is necessary for normal vertebral column formation along the entire axis, although the severity of the phenotype is strongest in the lumbar region and the tail. Pax-1-deficient mice lack vertebral bodies and intervertebral discs. The proximal part of the ribs and the rib homologues are also missing or severely malformed, whereas neural arches are nearly normal. Pax-1 is thus required for the development of the ventral parts of vertebrae. Embryonic analyses reveal that although sclerotomes are formed in mutant embryos, abnormalities can be detected from day 10.5 p.c. onwards. The phenotypic analyses also suggest that the notochord still influences vertebral body formation some days after the sclerotomes are formed. Furthermore, the notochord diameter is larger in mutant embryos from day 12 p.c., due to increased cell proliferation. In the strongly affected genotypes the notochord persists as a rod-like structure and the nucleus pulposus is never properly formed. Since the notochord is Pax-1-negative these findings suggest a bidirectional interaction between notochord and paraxial mesoderm. The availability of these Pax-1 mutant alleles permitted us to define an early role for Pax-1 in sclerotome patterning as well as a late role in intervertebral disc development. Our observations suggest that Pax-1 function is required for essential steps in ventral sclerotome differentiation, i.e. for the transition from the mesenchymal stage to the onset of chondrogenesis.

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