Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Ann C. Morris


Microphthalmia, anophthalmia, and coloboma (MAC) are distinct abnormalities demonstrating a continuum of developmental eye defects that contribute to 15-20% of blindness and severe vision deficiencies in children worldwide. The genetic etiology of MAC is large, complex and encompasses the whole developmental biology of the eye. Understanding how the eye develops will aid in identifying genes and developmental pathways involved in MAC. Although investigation of the genetic architecture of congenital anomalies is growing exponentially, much work remains to be accomplished to understand the complex, genetically heterogeneous congenital anomalies, which significantly impact childhood vision.

With an interest in elucidating the mechanisms that are involved in eye morphogenesis, I have characterized a SRY-Box transcription factor, Sox11, during zebrafish ocular development. The SRY (sex determining region Y)-box 11 (sox11) gene, codes for a transcription factor which functions as a regulator of cell fate, survival, and differentiation in the embryonic and adult nervous system. By titrating the levels of sox11 gene function in developing zebrafish embryos I have investigated the role of Sox11 during ocular morphogenesis and retinal neurogenesis. Chapter 1 of this dissertation provides a review of vertebrate eye development with a focus on emerging roles of SoxC proteins during vertebrate ocular morphogenesis. Chapter 2 presents data demonstrating that knockdown of both paralogs of sox11 in zebrafish results in microphthalmia, coloboma, as well as a specific deficit in mature rod photoreceptors. Additionally, we demonstrate for the first time that Sox11 regulates early ocular and photoreceptor development in part by maintaining proper levels of Hedgehog (Hh) signaling. Deficiency of Sox11 results in elevated Sonic Hedgehog a (Shha) transcript levels, which in turn leads to improper patterning of the optic vesicle into the proxio-distal territories. Furthermore, the data indicate that alterations in SOX11 gene dosage or mutation within the SOX11 coding region are potentially disease causing and contribute to human ocular defects like MAC and rod dysfunction. Chapter 3 presents data indicating that sox11 gene function is required during the critical period of neurulation (4-10 hours post fertilization) to guide choroid fissure closure and proper ocular morphogenesis to occur in the developing zebrafish. Chapter 4 is a technical report on the progress towards generating stable sox11a/b knockout zebrafish lines using the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing approach. Transient F0 injected embryos and F0 adults carry mutations in the sox11a/b target site in addition to displaying ocular abnormalities similar to those previously reported in sox11 morphants. F1 juveniles are ready to be screened for establishment of mutagenesis efficiency and germ line transmission. Finally, in Chapter 5 I discuss how the results of each chapter demonstrate the functional requirement of Sox11 for ocular development. Furthermore, I discuss the implications of this work in the field of developmental biology and how the current data will shape future investigations. My dissertation incorporates human genetics, biochemical analyses, and zebrafish reverse genetic analyses, and will help in better understanding the exact role of Sox11 during eye development at the cellular and molecular level. Moreover, by identifying Sox11 targets belonging to the Hh pathway, as well as novel targets of Sox11 regulation, these studies may also contribute to our understanding of the function of Sox11in development and disease pathogenesis.