In addition to pigment cells, and neural and endocrine derivatives, the neural crest is characterized by its ability to yield mesenchymal cells. In amniotes, this property is restricted to the cephalic region from the mid-diencephalon to the end of rhombomere 8 (level of somites 4/5). The cephalic neural crest is divided into two domains: an anterior region corresponding to the diencephalon, mesencephalon and metencephalon (r1, r2) in which expression of Hox genes is never observed, and a posterior domain in which neural crest cells exhibit (with a few exceptions) the same Hox code as the rhombomeres from which they originate. By altering the normal distribution of neural crest cells in the branchial arches through appropriate embryonic manipulations, we have investigated the relationships between Hox gene expression and the level of plasticity that neural crest cells display when they are led to migrate to an ectopic environment. We made the following observations. (i) Hox gene expression is not altered in neural crest cells by their transposition to ectopic sites. (ii) Expression of Hox genes by the BA ectoderm does not depend upon an induction by the neural crest. This second finding further supports the concept of segmentation of the cephalic ectoderm into ectomeres (Couly and Le Douarin, 1990). According to this concept, metameres can be defined in large bands of ectoderm including not only the CNS and the neural crest but also the corresponding superficial ectoderm fated to cover craniofacial primordia. (iii) The construction of a lower jaw requires the environment provided by the ectomesodermal components of BA1 or BA2 associated with the Hox gene non-expressing neural crest cells. Hox gene-expressing neural crest cells are unable to yield the lower jaw apparatus including the entoglossum and basihyal even in the BA1 environment. In contrast, the posterior part of the hyoid bone can be constructed by any region of the neural crest cells whether or not they are under the regulatory control of Hox genes. Such is also the case for the neural and connective tissues (including those comprising the cardiovascular system) of neural crest origin, upon which no segmental restriction is imposed. The latter finding confirms the plasticity observed 24 years ago (Le Douarin and Teillet, 1974) for the precursors of the PNS.

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