John Postlethwait

Professor, Department of Biology
Member, ION

Ph.D. Case Western Reserve
B.S. Stanford Univeristy

 

Research Interests: Genetic regulation of animal development including development of the nervous system, the mechanisms of sex determination, the origin of novel morphologies in evolution and the evolution of the vertebrate genome.

Overview: Our laboratory is interested in the genetic, genomic, and evolutionary principles that guide animal development. We investigate several aspects of this main problem: 

Genome Duplication: The evolution of gene functions in development after genome duplication, focusing on skeletal development.

Fanconi anemia: A small molecule screen for compounds to rescue zebrafish Fanconi Anemia mutants as a way to identify potential therapeutics for human FA patients and to understand disease mechanisms.

MicroRNAs: The roles of microRNAs in embryonic (especially skeletal) development, including evolving miRNA functions after genome duplication.

Icefish: The genetic basis for the evolution of osteopenia or osteoporosis in Antarctic icefish.

Sex determinaion:The developmental genetic basis for sex determination in zebrafish.

Speciation: The roles of genome duplication in lineage divergence, focusing on the evolution of cis and trans acting regulation in the radiation of the danio lineage, including zebrafish, and on variation among populations of stickleback.

Oikopleura: Retaining a chordate body plan as an adult, the larvacean urochordate Oikopleura dioica represents the sister lineage to the vertebrates, diverging before the R1 and R2 rounds of genome duplication that led to the origin of vertebrate innovations.

Perchlorate toxicity and sex determination: Perchlorate is a pervasive environmental contaminant that can cause partial sex reversal in stickleback. We are investigating the hypotheses that perchlorate alters sex development through the thyroid or a non-thyroidal mechanism.

Drosophila developmental genetics: Work on Drosophila homeotic mutants, pattern formation, and ovary development.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS

Trends Genet. 2021 Jul 29:S0168-9525(21)00191-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2021.07.002. Online ahead of print.

ABSTRACT

Model organism research is essential to understand disease mechanisms. However, laboratory-induced genetic models can lack genetic variation and often fail to mimic the spectrum of disease severity. Evolutionary mutant models (EMMs) are species with evolved phenotypes that mimic human disease. EMMs complement traditional laboratory models by providing unique avenues to study gene-by-environment interactions, modular mutations in noncoding regions, and their evolved compensations. EMMs have improved our understanding of complex diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and aging, and illuminated mechanisms in many organs. Rapid advancements of sequencing and genome-editing technologies have catapulted the utility of EMMs, particularly in fish. Fish are the most diverse group of vertebrates, exhibiting a kaleidoscope of specialized phenotypes, many that would be pathogenic in humans but are adaptive in the species' specialized habitat. Importantly, evolved compensations can suggest avenues for novel disease therapies. This review summarizes current research using fish EMMs to advance our understanding of human disease.

PMID:34334238 | DOI:10.1016/j.tig.2021.07.002

Genet Med. 2021 Jun 10. doi: 10.1038/s41436-021-01216-8. Online ahead of print.

ABSTRACT

PURPOSE: Growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) is a key signaling protein required for proper development of many organ systems. Only one prior study has associated an inherited GDF11 variant with a dominant human disease in a family with variable craniofacial and vertebral abnormalities. Here, we expand the phenotypic spectrum associated with GDF11 variants and document the nature of the variants.

METHODS: We present a cohort of six probands with de novo and inherited nonsense/frameshift (4/6 patients) and missense (2/6) variants in GDF11. We generated gdf11 mutant zebrafish to model loss of gdf11 phenotypes and used an overexpression screen in Drosophila to test variant functionality.

RESULTS: Patients with variants in GDF11 presented with craniofacial (5/6), vertebral (5/6), neurological (6/6), visual (4/6), cardiac (3/6), auditory (3/6), and connective tissue abnormalities (3/6). gdf11 mutant zebrafish show craniofacial abnormalities and body segmentation defects that match some patient phenotypes. Expression of the patients' variants in the fly showed that one nonsense variant in GDF11 is a severe loss-of-function (LOF) allele whereas the missense variants in our cohort are partial LOF variants.

CONCLUSION: GDF11 is needed for human development, particularly neuronal development, and LOF GDF11 alleles can affect the development of numerous organs and tissues.

PMID:34113007 | DOI:10.1038/s41436-021-01216-8

Orphanet J Rare Dis. 2021 May 7;16(1):206. doi: 10.1186/s13023-021-01839-9.

ABSTRACT

Decreased sequencing costs have led to an explosion of genetic and genomic data. These data have revealed thousands of candidate human disease variants. Establishing which variants cause phenotypes and diseases, however, has remained challenging. Significant progress has been made, including advances by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN). However, 6000-13,000 additional disease genes remain to be identified. The continued discovery of rare diseases and their genetic underpinnings provides benefits to affected patients, of whom there are more than 400 million worldwide, and also advances understanding the mechanisms of more common diseases. Platforms employing model organisms enable discovery of novel gene-disease relationships, help establish variant pathogenicity, and often lead to the exploration of underlying mechanisms of pathophysiology that suggest new therapies. The Model Organism Screening Center (MOSC) of the UDN is a unique resource dedicated to utilizing informatics and functional studies in model organisms, including worm (Caenorhabditis elegans), fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and zebrafish (Danio rerio), to aid in diagnosis. The MOSC has directly contributed to the diagnosis of challenging cases, including multiple patients with complex, multi-organ phenotypes. In addition, the MOSC provides a framework for how basic scientists and clinicians can collaborate to drive diagnoses. Customized experimental plans take into account patient presentations, specific genes and variant(s), and appropriateness of each model organism for analysis. The MOSC also generates bioinformatic and experimental tools and reagents for the wider scientific community. Two elements of the MOSC that have been instrumental in its success are (1) multidisciplinary teams with expertise in variant bioinformatics and in human and model organism genetics, and (2) mechanisms for ongoing communication with clinical teams. Here we provide a position statement regarding the central role of model organisms for continued discovery of disease genes, and we advocate for the continuation and expansion of MOSC-type research entities as a Model Organisms Network (MON) to be funded through grant applications submitted to the NIH, family groups focused on specific rare diseases, other philanthropic organizations, industry partnerships, and other sources of support.

PMID:33962631 | DOI:10.1186/s13023-021-01839-9

Genetics. 2019 Oct 1;213(2):529-553. doi: 10.1534/genetics.119.302365.

ABSTRACT

Anti-Mullerian hormone (Amh) inhibits female reproductive duct development, signals oocyte reserve, and marks polycystic ovarian syndrome. Zebrafish lacks Mullerian ducts and the typical Amh receptor, questioning evolving roles of Amh. Yan et al. made knockout mutations in zebrafish... Fetal mammalian testes secrete Anti-Müllerian hormone (Amh), which inhibits female reproductive tract (Müllerian duct) development. Amh also derives from mature mammalian ovarian follicles, which marks oocyte reserve and characterizes polycystic ovarian syndrome. Zebrafish (Danio rerio) lacks Müllerian ducts and the Amh receptor gene amhr2 but, curiously, retains amh. To discover the roles of Amh in the absence of Müllerian ducts and the ancestral receptor gene, we made amh null alleles in zebrafish. Results showed that normal amh prevents female-biased sex ratios. Adult male amh mutants had enormous testes, half of which contained immature oocytes, demonstrating that Amh regulates male germ cell accumulation and inhibits oocyte development or survival. Mutant males formed sperm ducts and some produced a few offspring. Young female mutants laid a few fertile eggs, so they also had functional sex ducts. Older amh mutants accumulated nonvitellogenic follicles in exceedingly large but sterile ovaries, showing that Amh helps control ovarian follicle maturation and proliferation. RNA-sequencing data partitioned juveniles at 21 days postfertilization (dpf) into two groups that each contained mutant and wild-type fish. Group21-1 upregulated ovary genes compared to Group21-2, which were likely developing as males. By 35 dpf, transcriptomes distinguished males from females and, within each sex, mutants from wild types. In adult mutants, ovaries greatly underexpressed granulosa and theca genes, and testes underexpressed Leydig cell genes. These results show that ancestral Amh functions included development of the gonadal soma in ovaries and testes and regulation of gamete proliferation and maturation. A major gap in our understanding is the identity of the gene encoding a zebrafish Amh receptor; we show here that the loss of amhr2 is associated with the breakpoint of a chromosome rearrangement shared among cyprinid fishes.

PMID:33954464 | DOI:10.1534/genetics.119.302365

Genetics. 2019 Oct 1;213(2):529-553. doi: 10.1534/genetics.119.302365.

ABSTRACT

Anti-Mullerian hormone (Amh) inhibits female reproductive duct development, signals oocyte reserve, and marks polycystic ovarian syndrome. Zebrafish lacks Mullerian ducts and the typical Amh receptor, questioning evolving roles of Amh. Yan et al. made knockout mutations in zebrafish... Fetal mammalian testes secrete Anti-Müllerian hormone (Amh), which inhibits female reproductive tract (Müllerian duct) development. Amh also derives from mature mammalian ovarian follicles, which marks oocyte reserve and characterizes polycystic ovarian syndrome. Zebrafish (Danio rerio) lacks Müllerian ducts and the Amh receptor gene amhr2 but, curiously, retains amh. To discover the roles of Amh in the absence of Müllerian ducts and the ancestral receptor gene, we made amh null alleles in zebrafish. Results showed that normal amh prevents female-biased sex ratios. Adult male amh mutants had enormous testes, half of which contained immature oocytes, demonstrating that Amh regulates male germ cell accumulation and inhibits oocyte development or survival. Mutant males formed sperm ducts and some produced a few offspring. Young female mutants laid a few fertile eggs, so they also had functional sex ducts. Older amh mutants accumulated nonvitellogenic follicles in exceedingly large but sterile ovaries, showing that Amh helps control ovarian follicle maturation and proliferation. RNA-sequencing data partitioned juveniles at 21 days postfertilization (dpf) into two groups that each contained mutant and wild-type fish. Group21-1 upregulated ovary genes compared to Group21-2, which were likely developing as males. By 35 dpf, transcriptomes distinguished males from females and, within each sex, mutants from wild types. In adult mutants, ovaries greatly underexpressed granulosa and theca genes, and testes underexpressed Leydig cell genes. These results show that ancestral Amh functions included development of the gonadal soma in ovaries and testes and regulation of gamete proliferation and maturation. A major gap in our understanding is the identity of the gene encoding a zebrafish Amh receptor; we show here that the loss of amhr2 is associated with the breakpoint of a chromosome rearrangement shared among cyprinid fishes.

PMID:33954439 | DOI:10.1534/genetics.119.302365

PLoS Genet. 2021 Apr 26;17(4):e1009364. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009364. Online ahead of print.

ABSTRACT

Vertebrate pigmentation is a fundamentally important, multifaceted phenotype. Zebrafish, Danio rerio, has been a valuable model for understanding genetics and development of pigment pattern formation due to its genetic and experimental tractability, advantages that are shared across several Danio species having a striking array of pigment patterns. Here, we use the sister species D. quagga and D. kyathit, with stripes and spots, respectively, to understand how natural genetic variation impacts phenotypes at cellular and organismal levels. We first show that D. quagga and D. kyathit phenotypes resemble those of wild-type D. rerio and several single locus mutants of D. rerio, respectively, in a morphospace defined by pattern variation along dorsoventral and anteroposterior axes. We then identify differences in patterning at the cellular level between D. quagga and D. kyathit by repeated daily imaging during pattern development and quantitative comparisons of adult phenotypes, revealing that patterns are similar initially but diverge ontogenetically. To assess the genetic architecture of these differences, we employ reduced-representation sequencing of second-generation hybrids. Despite the similarity of D. quagga to D. rerio, and D. kyathit to some D. rerio mutants, our analyses reveal a complex genetic basis for differences between D. quagga and D. kyathit, with several quantitative trait loci contributing to variation in overall pattern and cellular phenotypes, epistatic interactions between loci, and abundant segregating variation within species. Our findings provide a window into the evolutionary genetics of pattern-forming mechanisms in Danio and highlight the complexity of differences that can arise even between sister species. Further studies of natural genetic diversity underlying pattern variation in D. quagga and D. kyathit should provide insights complementary to those from zebrafish mutant phenotypes and more distant species comparisons.

PMID:33901178 | DOI:10.1371/journal.pgen.1009364

Mol Biol Evol. 2021 Apr 19:msab105. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msab105. Online ahead of print.

ABSTRACT

microRNAs (miRNAs) are important gene expression regulators implicated in many biological processes, but we lack a global understanding of how miRNA genes evolve and contribute to developmental canalization and phenotypic diversification. Whole genome duplication events likely provide a substrate for species divergence and phenotypic change by increasing gene numbers and relaxing evolutionary pressures. To understand the consequences of genome duplication on miRNA evolution, we studied miRNA genes following the Teleost Genome Duplication (TGD). Analysis of miRNA genes in four teleosts and in spotted gar, whose lineage diverged before the TGD, revealed that miRNA genes were retained in ohnologous pairs more frequently than protein-coding genes, and that gene losses occurred rapidly after the TGD. Genomic context influenced retention rates, with clustered miRNA genes retained more often than non-clustered miRNA genes and intergenic miRNA genes retained more frequently than intragenic miRNA genes, which often shared the evolutionary fate of their protein-coding host. Expression analyses revealed both conserved and divergent expression patterns across species in line with miRNA functions in phenotypic canalization and diversification, respectively. Finally, major strands of miRNA genes experienced stronger purifying selection, especially in their seeds and 3' complementary regions, compared to minor strands, which nonetheless also displayed evolutionary features compatible with constrained function. This study provides the first genome-wide, multi-species analysis of the mechanisms influencing metazoan miRNA evolution after whole genome duplication.

PMID:33871629 | DOI:10.1093/molbev/msab105