Endothelin-converting enzyme-1 and -2 (ECE-1 and -2) are membrane-bound metalloproteases that can cleave biologically the inactive endothelin-1 (ET- 1) precursor to form active ET-1 in vitro. We previously reported developmental defects in specific subsets of neural crest-derived tissues, including branchial arch-derived craniofacial structures, aortic arch arteries, and the cardiac outflow tract in ECE-1 knockout mice. To examine the role of ECE-2 in cardiovascular development, we have now generated a null mutation in ECE-2 by homologous recombination. ECE-2 null mice develop normally, are healthy into adulthood, are fertile in both sexes, and live a normal life span. However, when they are bred into an ECE-1-null background, defects in cardiac outflow structures become more severe than those in ECE-1 single knockout embryos. In addition, ECE-1(-/-); ECE-2(-/-) double null- embryos exhibited abnormal atrioventricular valve formation, a phenotype never seen in ECE-1 single knockout embryos. In the developing mouse heart, ECE-2 mRNA is expressed in the endocardial cushion mesenchyme from embyronic day (E) 12.5, in contrast to the endocardial expression of ECE-1. Levels of mature ET-1 and ET-2 in whole ECE-1(-/-); ECE-2(-/-) embryos at E12.5 do not differ appreciably from those of ECE-1(-/-) embryos. The significant residual ET-1/ET-2 in the ECE-1(-/-); ECE-2(-/-) embryos indicates that proteases distinct from ECE-1 and ECE-2 can carry out ET-1 activation in vivo.
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