Podocytes are terminally differentiated cells with an elaborate cytoskeleton and are critical components of the glomerular barrier. We identified a bHLH transcription factor, Tcf21, that is highly expressed in developing and mature podocytes. Because conventional Tcf21 knockout mice die in the perinatal period with major cardiopulmonary defects, we generated a conditional Tcf21 knockout mouse to explore the role of this transcription factor in podocytes in vivo. Tcf21 was deleted from podocytes and podocyte progenitors using podocin-cre (podTcf21) and wnt4-cre (wnt4creTcf21) driver strains, respectively. Loss of Tcf21 from capillary-loop stage podocytes (podTcf21) results in simplified glomeruli with a decreased number of endothelial and mesangial cells. By 5 weeks of age, 40% of podTcf21 mice develop massive proteinuria and lesions similar to FSGS. Notably, the remaining 60% of mice do not develop proteinuria even when aged to 8 months. By contrast, earlier deletion of Tcf21 from podocyte precursors (wnt4creTcf21) results in a profound developmental arrest of podocyte differentiation and renal failure in 100% of mice during the perinatal period. Taken together, our results demonstrate a critical role for Tcf21 in the differentiation and maintenance of podocytes. Identification of direct targets of this transcription factor may provide new therapeutic avenues for proteinuric renal disease, including FSGS.
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