Titin is a molecular spring that determines the passive stiffness of muscle cells. Changes in titin's stiffness occur in various myopathies, but whether these are a cause or an effect of the disease is unknown. We studied a novel mouse model in which titin's stiffness was slightly increased by deleting nine immunoglobulin (Ig)-like domains from titin's constitutively expressed proximal tandem Ig segment (IG KO). KO mice displayed mild kyphosis, a phenotype commonly associated with skeletal muscle myopathy. Slow muscles were atrophic with alterations in myosin isoform expression; functional studies in soleus muscle revealed a reduced specific twitch force. Exon expression analysis showed that KO mice underwent additional changes in titin splicing to yield smaller than expected titin isoforms that were much stiffer than expected. Additionally, splicing occurred in the PEVK region of titin, a finding confirmed at the protein level. The titin-binding protein Ankrd1 was highly increased in the IG KO, but this did not play a role in generating small titin isoforms because titin expression was unaltered in IG KO mice crossed with Ankrd1-deficient mice. In contrast, the splicing factor RBM20 (RNA-binding motif 20) was also significantly increased in IG KO mice, and additional differential splicing was reversed in IG KO mice crossed with a mouse with reduced RBM20 activity. Thus, increasing titin's stiffness triggers pathological changes in skeletal muscle, with an important role played by RBM20.
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