Spinal muscular atrophy is a severe motor neuron disease caused by inactivating mutations in the SMN1 gene leading to reduced levels of full-length functional SMN protein. SMN is a critical mediator of spliceosomal protein assembly, and complete loss or drastic reduction in protein leads to loss of cell viability. However, the reason for selective motor neuron degeneration when SMN is reduced to levels which are tolerated by all other cell types is not currently understood. Widespread splicing abnormalities have recently been reported at end-stage in a mouse model of SMA, leading to the proposition that disruption of efficient splicing is the primary mechanism of motor neuron death. However, it remains unclear whether splicing abnormalities are present during early stages of the disease, which would be a requirement for a direct role in disease pathogenesis. We performed exon-array analysis of RNA from SMN deficient mouse spinal cord at 3 time points, pre-symptomatic (P1), early symptomatic (P7), and late-symptomatic (P13). Compared to littermate control mice, SMA mice showed a time-dependent increase in the number of exons showing differential expression, with minimal differences between genotypes at P1 and P7, but substantial variation in late-symptomatic (P13) mice. Gene ontology analysis revealed differences in pathways associated with neuronal development as well as cellular injury. Validation of selected targets by RT–PCR confirmed the array findings and was in keeping with a shift between physiologically occurring mRNA isoforms. We conclude that the majority of splicing changes occur late in SMA and may represent a secondary effect of cell injury, though we cannot rule out significant early changes in a small number of transcripts crucial to motor neuron survival.
The identification of mutations in the Survival Motor Neuron (SMN) gene as the cause of the severe motor neuron disorder spinal muscular atrophy is one of a number of discoveries implicating selective motor neuron vulnerability to defects in processing of RNA and its associated ribonucleoprotein complexes. An unresolved issue is whether loss of the general cellular function of SMN in spliceosomal assembly, which is predicted to result in widespread defects in mRNA splicing, is directly responsible for motor neuron death. We have used exon-specific microarrays to assess the degree of altered splicing in the spinal cord in a mouse model of SMA. Our finding that the vast majority of splicing changes are a late feature of the disease and may represent a shift to alternative isoform expression, rather than loss of splicing fidelity, provides evidence that widespread splicing disturbance is not a primary feature of the disease pathogenesis but a secondary effect of cell injury in a late phase of the disease. However, our study cannot rule out a role for subtle early changes in one or a few transcripts crucial to motor neuron survival expressed at low levels or in only in a sub-population of spinal cord cells.