Alternative splicing of Wilms tumor suppressor 1 (Wt1) exon 4 results in protein isoforms with different functions.
The Wilms tumor suppressor gene Wt1 encodes a zinc finger transcription factor that is essential for development of multiple organs including kidneys, gonads, spleen and heart. In mammals Wt1 comprises 10 exons with two characteristic splicing events: inclusion or skipping of exon 5 and alternative usage of two splice donor sites between exons 9 and 10. Most fish including zebrafish and medaka possess two wt1 paralogs, wt1a and wt1b, both lacking exon 5. Here we have characterized wt1 in guppy, platyfish and the short-lived African killifish Nothobranchius furzeri. All fish except zebrafish show alternative splicing of exon 4 of wt1a but not of wt1b with the wt1a(-exon 4) isoform being the predominant splice variant. With regard to function, Wt1a(+exon 4) showed less dimerization but stimulated transcription more effectively than the Wt1a(-exon 4) isoform. A specific knockdown of wt1a exon 4 in zebrafish was associated with anomalies in kidney development demonstrating a physiological function for Wt1a exon 4. Interestingly, alternative splicing of exon 4 seems to be an early evolutionary event as it is observed in the single wt1 gene of the sturgeon, a species that has not gone through teleost-specific genome duplication.