The erbB4 gene encodes one of the four members of the mammalian ErbB family of transmembrane tyrosine kinases. The ErbB4 protein plays a role as a receptor for the neuregulins, a large group of structurally related molecules and a few other epidermal growth factor (EGF)-related polypeptides, such as heparin-binding EGF, betacellulin and epiregulin. The importance of this receptor tyrosine kinase in development has been demonstrated by the generation of mice with a targeted inactivation of the erbB4 gene. Such mice die by embryonic day eleven due to defective trabeculation in the heart, precluding analysis of phenotypes at later stages in development and in the adult. Now, using two unique genetic approaches our laboratories succeeded in overcoming this obstacle. In the first approach, the heart defects of ErbB4 null mutant mice were rescued by transgenic expression of an ErbB4 cDNA under a cardiac-specific myosin promoter. This allowed the generation of ErbB4 mutants that develop into adulthood and are fertile. In the second approach, the role of ErbB4 during mammary gland development was specifically addressed by Cre-mediated deletion of both erbB4 alleles within the mammary epithelium. Below we discuss the progress made studying these genetic models in understanding the physiological roles of ErbB4 with a focus on the mammary gland and the nervous system.
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