Caspases, cystein proteases traditionally related to programmed cell death, have recently been found to be involved in vital processes such as cell proliferation, adhesion and differentiation. Although caspases are expressed in mouse embryos before the blastocyst stage, their role is unclear, since apoptosis does not occur significantly before implantation. In this work, we have used mouse preimplantation development as a model to evaluate the existence of non-lethal caspase activities. The use of specific caspase inhibitors during in vitro embryo culture showed that caspase 8 activity, but not caspase 2 or 9, was relevant for development. The inhibition of caspase 8 affected the compaction of morulae and the progression to the blastocyst stage. In agreement with these results, caspase 8 was expressed in mouse embryos, as shown by indirect immunofluorescence and RT-PCR. An in silico approach was used to find putative caspase targets expressed in mouse preimplantation embryos. Large-scale management of sequence data from mouse embryos was used to predict caspase substrates by tools matrix-based on known cleavage sites. A total of 510 potential caspase targets expressed in mouse embryos were identified by this procedure. The functional characterization of these proteins by Gene Onthology associations showed that many of these putative caspase targets were previously related to non-apoptotic functions and only 63 had been previously reported to be actually cleaved by caspases. Interestingly, eleven knockout mice models for caspase substrates identified in our work, i.e. catenin alpha and beta, geminin, pescadillo, calpain-2, have preimplantation lethal phenotypes. This work supports the involvement of caspases in vital functions during mouse preimplantation development and proposes a model in which the regulated cleavage of caspase substrates could account for this role.
- Caspase substrate
- Mouse development