A common form of evolutionary variation between vertebrate taxa is the different numbers of segments that contribute to various regions of the anterior-posterior axis; cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, etc. The term ‘transposition’ is used to describe this phenomenon. Genetic experiments with homeotic genes in mice have demonstrated that Hox genes are in part responsible for the specification of segmental identity along the anterior-posterior axis, and it has been proposed that an axial Hox code determines the morphology of individual vertebrae (Kessel, M. and Gruss, P. (1990) Science 249, 347–379). This paper presents a comparative study of the developmental patterns of homeobox gene expression and developmental morphology between animals that have homologous regulatory genes but different morphologies. The axial expression boundaries of 23 Hox genes were examined in the paraxial mesoderm of chick, and 16 in mouse embryos by in situ hybridization and immunolocalization techniques. Hox gene anterior expression boundaries were found to be transposed in concert with morphological boundaries. This data contributes a mechanistic level to the assumed homology of these regions in vertebrates. The recognition of mechanistic homology supports the historical homology of basic patterning mechanisms between all organisms that share these genes.

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