Background: A strain of Leghorn chickens (rd/rd), unable to produce a functional riboflavin-binding protein, lays riboflavin-deficient eggs, in which all embryos suddenly die at mid-incubation (days 13-15). This malady, caused by riboflavin deficiency, leads to excessive lipid accumulation in liver, impaired β-oxidation of lipid, and severe hypoglycemia prior to death. We have used high-density chicken microarrays for time-course transcriptional scans of liver in chicken embryos between days 9-15 during this riboflavin-deficiency-induced metabolic catastrophe. For comparison, half of rd/rd embryos (n = 16) were rescued from this calamity by injection of riboflavin just prior to incubation of fertile eggs from rd/rd hens. Results: No significant differences were found between hepatic transcriptomes of riboflavin-deficient and riboflavin-rescued embryos at the first two ages (days 9 and 11). Overall, we found a 3.2-fold increase in the number of differentially expressed hepatic genes between day 13 (231 genes) and day 15 (734 genes). Higher expression of genes encoding the chicken flavoproteome was more evident in rescued- (15 genes) than in deficient-embryos (4 genes) at day 15. Diminished activity of flavin-dependent enzymes in riboflavin-deficient embryos blocks catabolism of yolk lipids, which normally serves as the predominant source of energy required for embryonic development. Conclusions: Riboflavin deficiency in mid-stage embryos leads to reduced expression of numerous genes controlling critical functions, including β-oxidation of lipids, blood coagulation and feathering. Surprisingly, reduced expression of feather keratin 1 was found in liver of riboflavin-deficient embryos at e15, which could be related to their delayed feathering and sparse clubbed down. A large number of genes are expressed at higher levels in liver of riboflavin-deficient embryos; these up-regulated genes control lipid storage/transport, gluconeogenesis, ketogenesis, protein catabolism/ubiquitination and cell death.
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