We report the isolation and characterization of an engrailed gene in the crustacean Artemia franciscana. The Artemia gene spans a genomic region of 15 kilobases and the coding sequence is interrupted by two introns. It appears to be the only gene of the engrailed family present in the Artemia genome. The predicted engrailed-like protein is 349 amino acids long and contains several domains including the homeodomain, well conserved when compared to other proteins of the engrailed family. Based on sequence comparisons we have detected, in the Artemia engrailed protein, several features which are in common with the Drosophila and Bombyx engrailed proteins. It also has some features specific for invected proteins. Therefore, this gene appears to have diverged from an ancestral gene common to both the engrailed and invected insect genes. Whole-mount in situ hybridization experiments show that the expression of this gene in postembryonic development of Artemia is restricted to the posterior part of at least the thoracic and maxillary segments. The pattern is generated sequentially from a growth zone organized in columns of cells close to the caudal region of the larvae. Cell proliferation in the growth zone follows an interspersed pattern without evidence of early lineage restrictions. The engrailed expression is detected in the growth zone before any segmentation is visible and continues to be expressed in a posterior location in the segments that are morphologically defined. Initially expressed in isolated cells, it spreads into rows broadening to two-three cells as segments mature. The evidence presented here is compatible with the hypothesis that intercellular signaling mechanisms are in part responsible of the early activation of selector genes.

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