Introduction: Villin 1 is an actin-regulatory protein involved in the formation of microvilli of mammalian enterocytes. The microvilli, finger-like protrusions, are more abundant on the apical surfaces of gill ionocytes in various freshwater (FW) teleosts than in seawater (SW) fishes. However, the plasticity in the mechanisms of microvillus formation in the gill ionocytes are poorly understood, and the actin-regulatory proteins involved in the formation of microvilli have not been identified in fishes. The present study used the euryhaline medaka (Oryzias dancena) as a model to explore the role of a homolog of villin 1 in the actin-organization of cellular morphologies induced by decreasing salinities. Results: By ultrastructural observation, there are numerous actin filaments organized on the apical cortex of ion-absorptive ionocytes in the FW-acclimated medaka. From gills of the euryhaline medaka, we have identified the VILL sequence. The phylogenetic tree and functional domains suggest that VILL is the homolog of villin 1 in fishes. Immunofluorescence using a specific antibody revealed that VILL was specifically localized to the apical region of gill ionocytes along with microvilli in the FW medaka, but not in SW fish. The expression levels of Odvill mRNA and VILL protein were higher in the gills of the FW individuals than in the SW group and were induced when fish were transferred from SW to FW. A morpholino oligonucleotide for VILL knockdown eliminated the apical protrusions of ionocytes and pavement cells in the trunk epithelia of embryos. Conclusions: From a novel aspect of cytoskeletal functions, our findings highlighted the important role of VILL protein in the ionoregulation of aquatic vertebrates in response to different osmotic challenges. This study is the first to show that the expression of VILL is associated with the formation of microvilli in the absorptive ionocytes of a euryhaline fish. Loss-of-function experiments showed that the distribution of VILL may represent the molecular link between the cytoskeletal organization and cellular morphology of the absorptive ionocytes during hypoosmotic adaptation in aquatic vertebrates.
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