Nonsyndromic orofacial clefts are common birth defects with multifactorial etiology. The most common type is cleft lip, which occurs with or without cleft palate (nsCLP and nsCLO, respectively). Although genetic components play an important role in nsCLP, the genetic factors that predispose to palate involvement are largely unknown. In this study, we carried out a meta-analysis on genetic and clinical data from three large cohorts and identified strong association between a region on chromosome 15q13 and nsCLP (P = 8.13×10−14 for rs1258763; relative risk (RR): 1.46, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.32–1.61)) but not nsCLO (P = 0.27; RR: 1.09 (0.94–1.27)). The 5 kb region of strongest association maps downstream of Gremlin-1 (GREM1), which encodes a secreted antagonist of the BMP4 pathway. We show during mouse embryogenesis, Grem1 is expressed in the developing lip and soft palate but not in the hard palate. This is consistent with genotype-phenotype correlations between rs1258763 and a specific nsCLP subphenotype, since a more than two-fold increase in risk was observed in patients displaying clefts of both the lip and soft palate but who had an intact hard palate (RR: 3.76, CI: 1.47–9.61, Pdiff<0.05). While we did not find lip or palate defects in Grem1-deficient mice, wild type embryonic palatal shelves developed divergent shapes when cultured in the presence of ectopic Grem1 protein (P = 0.0014). The present study identified a non-coding region at 15q13 as the second, genome-wide significant locus specific for nsCLP, after 13q31. Moreover, our data suggest that the closely located GREM1 gene contributes to a rare clinical nsCLP entity. This entity specifically involves abnormalities of the lip and soft palate, which develop at different time-points and in separate anatomical regions.
Clefts of the lip and palate are common birth defects, and require long-term multidisciplinary management. Their etiology involves genetic factors and environmental influences and/or a combination of both, however, these interactions are poorly defined. Moreover, although clefts of the lip may or may not involve the palate, the determinants predisposing to specific subphenotypes are largely unknown. Here we demonstrate that variations in the non-coding region near the GREM1 gene show a highly significant association with a particular phenotype in which cleft lip and cleft palate co-occur (nsCLP; P = 8.13×10−14). Our data suggest that the risk is even higher for patients who have a cleft lip and a cleft of the soft palate, but not of the hard palate. Interestingly, this subphenotype corresponds to the expression of the mouse Grem1 gene, which is found in the developing lip and soft palate but not in the hard palate. While Grem1-deficient mice display no lip or palate defects, we demonstrate that ectopic Grem1 protein alters palatal shelve morphogenesis. Together, our results identify a region near GREM1 as the second, genome-wide significant risk locus for nsCLP, and suggest that deregulated GREM1 expression during craniofacial development may contribute to this common birth defect.