During chick limb development the gap junction protein Connexin-43 (Cx43) is expressed in discrete spatially restricted domains in the apical ectodermal ridge (AER) and mesenchyme of the zone of polarising activity. Antisense oligonucleotides (ODNs) were used to investigate the role of Connexin-43 (Cx43) in the development of the chick limb bud. We have used unmodified ODNs in Pluronic F-127 gel, which is liquid at low temperature but sets at room temperature and so remains situated at the point of application. As a mild surfactant, the gel increases antisense ODN penetration and supplies ODNs to the embryo continually for 12-18 h. We have shown a strong decrease in Cx43 protein expression after application of specific antisense oligonucleotides but the abundance of a closely related protein, Connexin-32 (Cx32), was not affected. Application of antisense Cx43 ODNs at stages 8-15 HH before limb outgrowth resulted in dramatic limb phenotypes. About 40% of treated embryos exhibited defects such as truncation of the limb bud, fragmentation into two or more domains, or complete splitting of the limb bud into two or three branches. Molecular analysis of antisense treated embryos failed to detect Shh or Bmp-2 in anterior structures and suggested that extra lobes seen in nicked and split limbs were not a result of establishment of new signalling centres as found after the application of FGF to the flank. However, examination of markers for the AER showed a number of abnormalities. In severely truncated specimens we were unable to detect the expression of either Fgf-4 or Fgf-8. In both nicked and split limbs the expression of these genes was discontinuous. Down-regulation of Cx43 after the antisense application could be comparable to AER removal and results in distal truncation of the limb bud. Taken together these data suggest the existence of a feedback loop between the FGFs and signalling mediated by Cx43.
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