Heterozygous germline mutations and deletions in PHOX2B, a key regulator of autonomic neuron development, predispose to neuroblastoma, a tumor of the peripheral sympathetic nervous system. To gain insight into the oncogenic mechanisms engaged by these changes, we used zebrafish models to study the functional consequences of aberrant PHOX2B expression in the cells of the developing sympathetic nervous system. Allelic deficiency, modeled by phox2b morpholino knockdown, led to a decrease in the terminal differentiation markers th and dbh in sympathetic ganglion cells. The same effect was seen on overexpression of two distinct neuroblastoma-associated frameshift mutations, 676delG and K155X - but not the R100L missense mutation - in the presence of endogenous Phox2b, pointing to their dominant-negative effects. We demonstrate that Phox2b is capable of regulating itself as well as ascl1, and that phox2b deficiency uncouples this autoregulatory mechanism, leading to inhibition of sympathetic neuron differentiation. This effect on terminal differentiation is associated with an increased number of phox2b+, ascl1+, elavl3− cells that respond poorly to retinoic acid. These findings suggest that a reduced dosage of PHOX2B during development, through either a heterozygous deletion or dominant-negative mutation, imposes a block in the differentiation of sympathetic neuronal precursors, resulting in a cell population that is likely to be susceptible to secondary transforming events.
Neuroblastoma, a tumor of the peripheral sympathetic nervous system, is the most common cancer diagnosed in infancy. Although most cases arise sporadically, familial predisposition also occurs in association with mutations in a single copy of the PHOX2B gene, a “master regulator” of sympathetic neuronal development. The exact mechanisms by which these mutations increase susceptibility to neuroblastoma are unclear, primarily because of the paucity of optimal models in which to study very early development of the sympathetic nervous system. We took advantage of the ex vivo development and transparent nature of zebrafish embryos to study the roles of both normal and mutated PHOX2B in development of the sympathetic nervous system. We present data indicating that aberrant PHOX2B expression causes an arrest in the normal maturation of sympathetic neurons, leading to immature cells that are resistant to drug-induced differentiation. Indeed, we demonstrate that phox2b gene “dosage” is important for normal differentiation of sympathetic neurons in the zebrafish and suggest that the population of immature cells resulting from a decreased dosage of this pivotal factor may be susceptible to secondary mutations that could ultimately lead to neuroblastoma.