The functional significance of the actin-binding domain of dystrophin, the protein lacking in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, has remained elusive. Patients with deletions of this domain (domain I) typically express low levels of the truncated protein. Whether the moderate to severe phenotypes associated with such deletions result from loss of an essential function, or from reduced levels of a functional protein, is unclear. To address this question, we have generated transgenic mice that express wild-type levels of a dystrophin deleted for the majority of the actin-binding domain. The transgene derived protein lacks amino acids 45-273, removing 2 of 3 in vitro identified actin interacting sites and part of hinge 1. Examination of the effect of this deletion in mice lacking wild-type dystrophin (mdx) suggests that a functional domain I is not essential for prevention of a dystrophic phenotype. However, in contrast to deletions in the central rod domain and to full-length dystrophin, both of which are functional at only 20% of wild-type levels, proteins with a deletion in domain I must be expressed at high levels to prevent a severe dystrophy. These results are also in contrast to the severe dystrophy resulting from truncation of the COOH-terminal domain that links dystrophin to the extracellular matrix. The mild phenotype observed in mice with domain I-deletions indicates that an intact actin-binding domain is not essential, although it does contribute to an important function of dystrophin. These studies also suggest the link between dystrophin and the subsarcolemmal cytoskeleton involves more than a simple attachment of domain I to actin filaments.

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