BMC developmental biology

Role of the 2 zebrafish survivin genes in vasculo-angiogenesis, neurogenesis, cardiogenesis and hematopoiesis.

PMID 19323830


Normal growth and development of organisms requires maintenance of a dynamic balance between systems that promote cell survival and those that induce apoptosis. The molecular mechanisms that regulate these processes remain poorly understood, and thus further in vivo study is required. Survivin is a member of the inhibitor of apoptosis protein (IAP) family, that uniquely also promotes mitosis and cell proliferation. Postnatally, survivin is hardly detected in most tissues, but is upregulated in all cancers, and as such, is a potential therapeutic target. Prenatally, survivin is also highly expressed in several tissues. Fully delineating the properties of survivin in vivo in mice has been confounded by early lethal phenotypes following survivin gene inactivation. To gain further insights into the properties of survivin, we used the zebrafish model. There are 2 zebrafish survivin genes (Birc5a and Birc5b) with overlapping expression patterns during early development, prominently in neural and vascular structures. Morpholino-induced depletion of Birc5a causes profound neuro-developmental, hematopoietic, cardiogenic, vasculogenic and angiogenic defects. Similar abnormalities, all less severe except for hematopoiesis, were evident with suppression of Birc5b. The phenotypes induced by morpholino knockdown of one survivin gene, were rescued by overexpression of the other, indicating that the Birc5 paralogs may compensate for each. The potent vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) also entirely rescues the phenotypes induced by depletion of either Birc5a and Birc5b, highlighting its multi-functional properties, as well as the power of the model in characterizing the activities of growth factors. Overall, with the zebrafish model, we identify survivin as a key regulator of neurogenesis, vasculo-angiogenesis, hematopoiesis and cardiogenesis. These properties of survivin, which are consistent with those identified in mice, indicate that its functions are highly conserved across species, and point to the value of the zebrafish model in understanding the role of this IAP in the pathogenesis of human disease, and for exploring its potential as a therapeutic target.