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The role of p53 in developmental syndromes
Margot E. Bowen1 and Laura D. Attardi 1,2,*
1 Division of Radiation and Cancer Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
2 Department of Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA
*Correspondence to:Laura D. Attardi, E-mail:
J Mol Cell Biol, Volume 11, Issue 3, March 2019, 200-211,
Keyword: p53, Mdm2, development, embryo, congenital defect, syndrome, genetic disorder
While it is well appreciated that loss of the p53 tumor suppressor protein promotes cancer, growing evidence indicates that increased p53 activity underlies the developmental defects in a wide range of genetic syndromes. The inherited or de novo mutations that cause these syndromes affect diverse cellular processes, such as ribosome biogenesis, DNA repair, and centriole duplication, and analysis of human patient samples and mouse models demonstrates that disrupting these cellular processes can activate the p53 pathway. Importantly, many of the developmental defects in mouse models of these syndromes can be rescued by loss of p53, indicating that inappropriate p53 activation directly contributes to their pathogenesis. A role for p53 in driving developmental defects is further supported by the observation that mouse strains with broad p53 hyperactivation, due to mutations affecting p53 pathway components, display a host of tissue-specific developmental defects, including hematopoietic, neuronal, craniofacial, cardiovascular, and pigmentation defects. Furthermore, germline activating mutations in TP53 were recently identified in two human patients exhibiting bone marrow failure and other developmental defects. Studies in mice suggest that p53 drives developmental defects by inducing apoptosis, restraining proliferation, or modulating other developmental programs in a cell type-dependent manner. Here, we review the growing body of evidence from mouse models that implicates p53 as a driver of tissue-specific developmental defects in diverse genetic syndromes.