Endolymph is the specialised extracellular fluid present inside the inner ear. In mammals, disruptions to endolymph homeostasis can result in either collapse or distension of the endolymphatic compartment in the cochlea, with concomitant hearing loss. The zebrafish little ears (lte) mutant shows a collapse of the otic vesicle in the larva, apparently owing to a loss of endolymphatic fluid in the ear, together with an over-inflation of the swim bladder. Mutant larvae display signs of abnormal vestibular function by circling and swimming upside down. The two available alleles of lte are homozygous lethal: mutant larvae fail to thrive beyond 6 days post-fertilisation. Patterning of the otic vesicle is apparently normal. However, the expression of several genes thought to play a role in endolymph production is downregulated, including the sodium-potassium-chloride cotransporter gene nkcc1 (slc12a2) and several Na(+)/K(+)-ATPase channel subunit genes. We show here that lte mutations correspond to lesions in nkcc1. Each allele has a point mutation that disrupts splicing, leading to frame shifts in the coding region that predict the generation of truncated products. Endolymph collapse in the lte/nkcc1 mutant shows distinct parallels to that seen in mouse Nkcc1 mutants, validating zebrafish as a model for the study of endolymph disorders. The collapse in ear volume can be ameliorated in the to27d allele of lte by injection of a morpholino that blocks splicing at an ectopic site introduced by the mutation. This exemplifies the use of morpholinos as potential therapeutic agents for genetic disease.
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