Affecting 1-3% of the population, mental retardation (MR) poses significant challenges for clinicians and scientists. Understanding the biology of MR is complicated by the extraordinary heterogeneity of genetic MR disorders. Detailed analyses of > 1000 Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) database entries and literature searches through September 2003 revealed 282 molecularly identified MR genes. We estimate that hundreds more MR genes remain to be identified. A novel test, in which we distributed unmapped MR disorders proportionately across the autosomes, failed to eliminate the well-known X-chromosome overrepresentation of MR genes and candidate genes. This evidence argues against ascertainment bias as the main cause of the skewed distribution. On the basis of a synthesis of clinical and laboratory data, we developed a biological functions classification scheme for MR genes. Metabolic pathways, signaling pathways, and transcription are the most common functions, but numerous other aspects of neuronal and glial biology are controlled by MR genes as well. Using protein sequence and domain-organization comparisons, we found a striking conservation of MR genes and genetic pathways across the ∼700 million years that separate Homo sapiens and Drosophila melanogaster. Eighty-seven percent have one or more fruit fly homologs and 76% have at least one candidate functional ortholog. We propose that D. melanogaster can be used in a systematic manner to study MR and possibly to develop bioassays for therapeutic drug discovery. We selected 42 Drosophila orthologs as most likely to reveal molecular and cellular mechanisms of nervous system development or plasticity relevant to MR.
ASJC Scopus subject areas