The Abdominal-B (Abd-B) gene, a member of the bithorax complex (BX-C), specifies the identities of parasegments (PS) 10–14 in Drosophila. Abd-B codes for two structurally related homeodomain proteins, ABD-B m and ABD-B r, that are expressed in PS10-13 and PS14-15, respectively. Although ABD-B m and r proteins have distinct developmental functions, ectopic expression of either protein during embryogenesis induces the development of filzkorper and associated spiracular hairs, structures normally located in PS13, at ectopic sites in the larval thorax and abdomen. These results suggest that other parasegmental differences contribute to the phenotype specified by ABD-B r activity in PS14. Both ABD-B m and r repress the expression of other homeotic genes, such as Ubx and abd-A, in PS10-14. However, the importance of these and other cross-regulatory interactions among homeotic genes has been questioned. Since ectopic UBX protein apparently failed to transform abdominal segments, Gonzalez-Reyes et al. (Gonzalez-Reyes, A., Urquia, N., Gehring, W.J., Struhl, G. and Morata, G. (1990). Nature 344, 78–80) proposed a functional hierarchy in which ABD-A and ABD-B activities override UBX activity. We tested this model by expressing UBX and ABD-B m proteins ectopically in wild-type and BX-C-deficient embryos. Ectopic ABD-B m does not prevent transformations induced by ectopic UBX. Instead, ectopic UBX and ABD-B m proteins compete for the specification of segmental identities in a dose-dependent fashion. Our results support a quantitative competition among the homeotic proteins rather than the existence of a strict functional hierarchy. Therefore, we suggest that cross-regulatory interactions are not irrelevant but are important for repressing the expression of competing homeotic proteins. To explain the apparent failure of ectopic UBX to transform the abdominal segments, we expressed UBX at different times during embryonic development. Our results show that ectopic UBX affects abdominal cuticular identities if expressed during early stages of embryogenesis. In later embryonic stages, abdominal segments become resistant to transformation by ectopic UBX while thoracic segments remain susceptible. Head segments also show a similar stage-dependent susceptibility to transformation by ectopic UBX in early embryogenesis but become resistant in later stages. These results suggest that abdominal and head identities are determined earlier than are thoracic identities.

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