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Homeobox Genes. Body organisation. Cell Differentiation. Cell differentiation is the development of non-specialised cells into cells with specialised functions. Examples: muscle cells, liver cell, red blood cells

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homeobox genes

Homeobox Genes

Body organisation

cell differentiation
Cell Differentiation
  • Cell differentiation is the development of non-specialised cells into cells with specialised functions.
    • Examples: muscle cells, liver cell, red blood cells
  • As organisms grow and develop from fertilised eggs; organs and tissues develop to produce a characteristic form. The process is called morphogenesis.
  • Both processes are controlled by gene expression
what is gene expression
What is gene expression?

Gene expression is the activation of a gene that results in a polypeptide or protein being made.

The expression of some genes (regulatory genes) results in the production of a protein that can turn on or switch off other genes, these are called Transcription factors

body plans
Body plans
  • Every organism has a unique body pattern because of the influence of HOMEOTIC genes.
  • These specify how different areas of the body develop their individual structures, eg. Arms, legs etc
  • HOMEOTIC or HOMEOBOX genes were discovered when geneticists studying fruit flies found mutants with legs growing where their antennae should be and 2 sets of wings instead of 1.
homeotic genes
Homeotic Genes
  • Homeotic genes are regulatory genes that determine where certain anatomical structures, such as appendages, will develop in an organism during morphogenesis.
  • These seem to be the master genes of development, they act as switches for other genes
  • Mutant Antennapedia gene

Mutant with legs growing out of head


Antennapedia complex (group of Homeobox genes)
  • 5 genes that affect the anterior part of the fly
  • When mutated, legs grow in the place of antennae
Bithorax gene complex (3 homeobox genes affecting thoracic development)
    • Normal – wings on 2nd thoracic segment and 2 halteres on 3rd thoracic segment (far left photo, halteres in white)
    • Mutant – 3rd segment has wings so 2 sets of wings and no halteres


  • In Drosophila (fruit flies) the specific DNA sequence within a homeotic gene that regulates patterns of development is the homeobox.
  • The same or very similar homeobox sequences have been found in many other eukaryotic organisms
Homeotic genes code for homeotic proteins that function as transcription factors which switch on other genes

The Homeobox is a DNA sequence within the homeotic genes which contains 180 base-pair sequences, coding for a 60 amino acid polypeptide.

The protein binds to an area of the DNA and initiates the transcription of another set of genes. It acts like a switch.

Homeobox (HOX genes)

The HOX genes encode important transcription factors. The transcription factors cause proteins to be made that specify cell fate and identify

  • the embryonic pattern along the primary axis (anterior/posterior)
  • as well as the secondary axis (genital and limb bud)
  • They have a major role in development of CNS, axial skeleton, positioning of limbs as well as the gastrointestinal and urogenital tract.

Homeotic genes involved in spatial pattern control and development contain a conserved 180-bp sequence known as homeobox. This encodes a 60-amino-acid domain that binds to DNA.

  • The Hox proteins regulate other “executive” genes that encode transcription factors or morphogen signals, as well as operating at many other levels, on genes that mediate cell adhesion, cell division rates, cell death and cell movement.

In Humans as in most vertebrates there are 4 homeobox gene clusters (39 HOX genes), located on chromosomes 7p14, 17q21, 12q13 and 7q31.

Drosophila has eight Hox genes arranged in 2 clusters on a single chromosome.


A.Drosophila's eight Hoxgenes in a single cluster and 39 HOX genes in humans.B. Expression patterns of Hoxand HOX genes along the anterior-posterior axis in invertebrates and vertebrates.

hox genes
Hox genes
  • Three lines of evidence support the idea that Hox gene complexity has been instrumental in the evolution and speciation of animals with different body patterns
    • Hox genes are known to control body development
    • General trend for simpler animals to have fewer Hox genes and Hox gene clusters
    • Comparison of Hox gene evolution and animal evolution bear striking parallel
hox genes1
Hox genes
  • Found in all animals
  • Genetic mutation of Hox genes may have been critical events in the formation of new body plans
  • Number and arrangement of Hox genes varies among different types of animals
  • Increases in the number of Hox genes may have led to greater complexity in body structure

Fruit flies have only one Antennepedia-bithorax complex

  • Humans and many other vertebrates have 4 similar Hox gene clusters
  • They probably arose through gene duplication
  • Hox genes shape the number and appearance of body segments (repeated structures) along the main body axes of both vertebrates and invertebrates
how is a multicellular organism made
How is a multicellular organism made?
  • See Page 114 Text book
  • Even before fertilisation an egg has a gradient of proteins that help to establish its polarity (which end becomes the head or anterior and which is the tail, posterior)
  • After fertilisation“Maternal Effect” genes cause more proteins to be made that reinforce this polarity and also establish the dorsal (back) and ventral (belly) orientation
  • Polarity is this formation of the axis on which the embryo differentiates
  • Once the orientation is in place other genes are switched on
  • Segmentation occurs driven by Segmentation genes
  • Finally the Homeotic Selector genes are switched on
  • These control the final specialised development of each segment
  • There are two gene families in fruit flies (Drosophila), one controls the development of head and thorax, the other controls the development of thorax and abdomen
drosophila development
Drosophila development
  • The fertilised egg establishes the pattern for the adult body plan by establishing protein gradients. (a)
  • After fertilization, the zygote develops into a blastoderm.A series of nuclear divisions without cytoplasmic division produces many free nuclei in a syncytialblastoderm(b and c)
  • Individual cells are created after the nuclei line up along cell membrane to form a cellular blastoderm (d)

See page 114

Gastrulationinvolves cells migrating to

the interior, 3 cell layers formed-

ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm (e)

Segmented body plan develops (f) driven by

segmentation genes

Md, Mx and Lb segments merge to form


3 thoracic segments T1-3

8 abdominal segments A1-8

Larva – free living

Pupa – undergoes metamorphosis

Adult form determined by expression of

Homeotic selector genes

Egg to adult in 10 days

a homologous group of homeotic genes is found in all animals
A Homologous Group of Homeotic Genes Is Found in All Animals
  • Vertebrate Hox genes are homologous to those that control development in simpler organisms such as Drosophila
  • Homologous genes are evolutionarily derived from the same ancestral gene and have similar DNA sequences
  • Hox genes in mice
    • Follow the colinearity rule (are expressed in the same sequence as in simpler animals)
    • Have a key role in establishing anteroposterior axis and controlling the development of the body plan
homeotic genes in mus
Homeotic genes in Mus
  • The mouse has Hox genes on 4 different chromosomes
  • Hox genes are similar to those found in invertebrates but spread across more chromosomes
four general phases for body formation
Four general phases for body formation

Organize body along major axes

Organize into smaller regions (organs, legs)

Cells organize to produce body parts

Cells themselves change morphologies and become differentiated

hox genes determine the number and types of vertebrae in animals
Hox c-6 determines that the chicken has a shortish neck and the 7 vertebrae shown will develop ribs

Snake: Hox c-6 is expanded dramatically toward the head and toward the rear so the snake has no neck and all these vertebrae develop ribs.

Hox genes determine the number and types of vertebrae in animals
positional information during development
Positional information during development
  • Each cell in the body must become the appropriate cell type based on its relative position.
  • Each cell receives positional information that tells it where to go and what to become.
  • Cells may respond by
    • Cell division,
    • cell migration,
    • cell differentiation or
    • cell death (apoptosis)
position or spatial organization is everything
Position or Spatial Organization is Everything
  • 2 main mechanisms are used to communicate positional information
  • Morphogens , eg retinoic acid; this activates homeobox genes in the correct sequence. High concentrations of Vitamin A(precursor to retinoic acid) taken in pregnancy can interfere with the correct sequence of homeobox activation and hence affect the development of the embryo and cause birth defects
  • Cell adhesion
cell adhesion
Cell adhesion
  • Each cell makes its own cell adhesion molecules (CAMs)
  • Positioning of a cell within a multicellular organism is strongly influenced by the combination of contacts it makes with other cells and with the extracellular matrix.
for more information go to
For more information go to:
  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/03/4/l_034_04.html
  • http://www.dnaftb.org/dnaftb/37/concept/index.html
  • http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/archive/bodypatterns/index.html
  • Or search for information yourself!