The engrailed homeoprotein is a dominantly acting or ‘active’ transcriptional repressor both in cultured cells and in vivo. When retargeted via a homeodomain swap to the endogenous fushi tarazu gene (ftz), it actively represses it, resulting in a ftz mutant phenocopy. We have mapped functional regions of engrailed using this in vivo repression assay. In addition to a region containing an active repression domain identified in cell culture assays (K. Han and J. L. Manley (1993) EMBO J. 12, 2723–2733), we find that two evolutionarily conserved regions contribute to activity. The one of these that does not flank the HD is particularly crucial to repression activity in vivo. We find that this domain is present not only in all engrailed-class homeoproteins but also in all known members of several other classes, including goosecoid, Nk1, Nk2 and msh. Thus engrailed's active repression function in vivo is dependent on a highly conserved interaction that was established early in the evolution of the homeobox gene superfamily. We further show using rescue transgenes that the widely conserved in vivo repression domain is required for the normal function of engrailed in the embryo.

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