Holoprosencephaly (HPE) is a common developmental defect caused by failure to define the midline of the forebrain and/or midface. HPE is associated with heterozygous mutations in Nodal and Sonic hedgehog (SHH) pathway components, but clinical presentation is highly variable, and many mutation carriers are unaffected. It is therefore thought that such mutations interact with more common modifiers, genetic and/or environmental, to produce severe patterning defects. Modifiers are difficult to identify, as their effects are context-dependent and occur within the complex genetic and environmental landscapes that characterize human populations. This has made a full understanding of HPE etiology challenging. We discuss here the use of mice, a genetically tractable model sensitive to teratogens, as a system to address this challenge. Mice carrying mutations in human HPE genes often display wide variations in phenotypic penetrance and expressivity when placed on different genetic backgrounds, demonstrating the existence of silent HPE modifier genes. Studies with mouse lines carrying SHH pathway mutations on appropriate genetic backgrounds have led to identification of both genetic and environmental modifiers that synergize with the mutations to produce a spectrum of HPE phenotypes. These models favor a scenario in which multiple modifying influences—both genetic and environmental, sensitizing and protective—interact with bona fide HPE mutations to grade phenotypic outcomes. Despite the complex interplay of HPE risk factors, mouse models have helped establish some clear concepts in HPE etiology. A combination of mouse and human cohort studies should improve our understanding of this fascinating and medically important issue.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)140-150
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Journal of Medical Genetics, Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2018


  • gene–environment interaction
  • hedgehog signaling
  • holoprosencephaly
  • modifier genes
  • mouse
  • mutation
  • nodal signaling
  • teratogen


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