Mutations in the TCOF1, POLR1C, or POLR1D gene can cause Treacher Collins syndrome. TCOF1 gene mutations are the most common cause of the disorder, accounting for 81 to 93 percent of all cases. POLR1C and POLR1D gene mutations cause an additional 2 percent of cases. In individuals without an identified mutation in one of these genes, the genetic cause of the condition is unknown.
The proteins produced from the TCOF1, POLR1C, and POLR1D genes all appear to play important roles in the early development of bones and other tissues of the face. These proteins are involved in the production of a molecule called ribosomal RNA (rRNA), a chemical cousin of DNA. Ribosomal RNA helps assemble protein building blocks (amino acids) into new proteins, which is essential for the normal functioning and survival of cells. Mutations in the TCOF1, POLR1C, or POLR1D gene reduce the production of rRNA. Researchers speculate that a decrease in the amount of rRNA may trigger the self-destruction (apoptosis) of certain cells involved in the development of facial bones and tissues. The abnormal cell death could lead to the specific problems with facial development found in Treacher Collins syndrome. However, it is unclear why the effects of a reduction in rRNA are limited to facial development.