Retinoids, the active metabolites of vitamin A, regulate complex gene networks involved in vertebrate morphogenesis, growth, cellular differentiation, and homeostasis. They are used for the treatment of skin disorders and as chemopreventive agents for certain cancers. Molecular biology and genetic studies performed during the last 15 years in vitro, using either acellular systems or transfected cells, have shown that retinoid actions are mediated through heterodimers between the 8 major RARα, β, and γ; isoforms and the 6 major RXRα, β and γ isoforms that belong to the nuclear receptor (NR) superfamily, and act as ligand-dependent transcriptional regulators. Furthermore, RXRs not only heterodimerize with RARs, but also with numerous other members of the NR superfamily. As in vitro studies are carried out under nonphysiological conditions, they only indicate what is possible, but not necessarily what is actually occurring in vivo. Therefore, mutations have been introduced by homologous recombination (HR) in F9 embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells, a cell-autonomous system that differentiates in the presence of RA, in order to disrupt RAR and RXR genes and establish their cellular and molecular functions in RA-induced differentiation. However, genetic approaches in the animal should be used to determine the function of retinoid receptors under truly physiological conditions. HR in embryonic stem (ES) cells, has therefore been used to generate null mutations of the various RARs and RXRs in the mouse germline. As reviewed here, the generation of such RAR and RXR germline mutations, combined with pharmacological approaches to block the RA signaling pathway, has provided many valuable insights on the developmental functions of RA receptors. However, due to (i) the complexity in "hormonal" signaling through transduction by the multiple RARs and RXRs, (ii) the functional redundancies (possibly artefactually generated by the mutations) within receptor isotypes belonging to a given gene family, and (iii) in utero or postnatal lethality of certain germline null mutations, these genetic studies through germline mutagenesis have failed to reveal many of the physiological functions of RARs and RXRs, notably in adults. We conclude that spatio-temporally controlled somatic mutations generated in animal models in given cell-types/tissues and at chosen times during pre- and postnatal life, are required to reveal the physiological and pathophysiological functions of the receptor genes involved in the retinoid signaling pathway throughout the life of the mouse.
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