The pancreaticobiliary ductal system connects the liver and pancreas to the intestine. It is composed of the hepatopancreatic ductal (HPD) system as well as the intrahepatic biliary ducts and the intrapancreatic ducts. Despite its physiological importance, the development of the pancreaticobiliary ductal system remains poorly understood. The SRY-related transcription factor SOX9 is expressed in the mammalian pancreaticobiliary ductal system, but the perinatal lethality of Sox9 heterozygous mice makes loss-of-function analyses challenging. We turned to the zebrafish to assess the role of SOX9 in pancreaticobiliary ductal system development. We first show that zebrafish sox9b recapitulates the expression pattern of mouse Sox9 in the pancreaticobiliary ductal system and use a nonsense allele of sox9b, sox9bfh313, to dissect its function in the morphogenesis of this structure. Strikingly, sox9bfh313 homozygous mutants survive to adulthood and exhibit cholestasis associated with hepatic and pancreatic duct proliferation, cyst formation, and fibrosis. Analysis of sox9bfh313 mutant embryos and larvae reveals that the HPD cells appear to mis-differentiate towards hepatic and/or pancreatic fates, resulting in a dysmorphic structure. The intrahepatic biliary cells are specified but fail to assemble into a functional network. Similarly, intrapancreatic duct formation is severely impaired in sox9bfh313 mutants, while the embryonic endocrine and acinar compartments appear unaffected. The defects in the intrahepatic and intrapancreatic ducts of sox9bfh313 mutants worsen during larval and juvenile stages, prompting the adult phenotype. We further show that Sox9b interacts with Notch signaling to regulate intrahepatic biliary network formation: sox9b expression is positively regulated by Notch signaling, while Sox9b function is required to maintain Notch signaling in the intrahepatic biliary cells. Together, these data reveal key roles for SOX9 in the morphogenesis of the pancreaticobiliary ductal system, and they cast human Sox9 as a candidate gene for pancreaticobiliary duct malformation-related pathologies.
The liver and pancreas function as exocrine glands that secrete bile and pancreatic juice, respectively, to aid the digestion and absorption of nutrients. These fluids reach the intestine via the pancreaticobiliary ductal system, a complex network of ducts. Despite its pivotal role, the development of this ductal system is poorly understood. We have discovered that the zebrafish transcription factor gene sox9b, like its mammalian ortholog, is specifically expressed in the pancreaticobiliary ductal system. The perinatal lethality of Sox9 heterozygous mice makes the analysis of SOX9 function challenging; thus, we turned to the zebrafish to analyze the role of SOX9 in pancreaticobiliary ductal system development. We found that zebrafish sox9b mutants, which survive to adulthood, display defects in the morphogenesis of this ductal network: the intrahepatic and intrapancreatic ducts fail to form a branched network, whereas the ducts connecting the liver and pancreas to the intestine are malformed. These ductal defects affect bile transport and lead to cholestasis in adult mutant fish. At the molecular level, Sox9b interacts with the Notch signaling pathway to regulate the development of the intrahepatic biliary network. Therefore, our work in zebrafish reveals a broad and complex role for SOX9 in pancreaticobiliary ductal system morphogenesis.