The divergent homeobox gene Hex exhibits three notable expression patterns during early mouse development. Initially Hex is expressed in the primitive endoderm of the implanting blastocyst but by 5.5 dpc its transcripts are present only in a small patch of visceral endoderm at the distal tip of the egg cylinder. Lineage analysis shows that these cells move unilaterally to assume an anterior position while continuing to express Hex. The primitive streak forms on the opposite side of the egg cylinder from this anterior Hex expression domain approximately 24 hours after the initial anterior movement of the distal visceral endoderm. Thus, Hex expression marks the earliest unequivocal molecular anteroposterior asymmetry in the mouse embryo and indicates that the anteroposterior axis of the embryo develops from conversion of a proximodistal asymmetry established in the primitive endoderm lineage. Subsequently, Hex is expressed in the earliest definitive endoderm to emerge from the streak and its expression within the gut strongly suggests that the ventral foregut is derived from the most anterior definitive endoderm and that the liver is probably the most anterior gut derivative. Hex is also an early marker of the thyroid primordium. Within the mesoderm, Hex is transiently expressed in the nascent blood islands of the visceral yolk sac and later in embryonic angioblasts and endocardium. Comparison with flk-1 (T. P. Yamaguchi et al., Development 118, 489–498, 1993) expression indicates that Hex is also an early marker of endothelial precursors but its expression in this progenitor population is much more transient than that of flk-1, being downregulated once endothelial cell differentiation commences.

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