In the two nematode species Caenorhabditis elegans and Pristionchus pacificus the vulva equivalence group in the central body region is specified by the Hox gene lin-39. C. elegans lin-39 mutants are vulvaless and the vulval precursor cells fuse with the surrounding hypodermis, whereas in P. pacificus lin-39 mutants the vulval precursor cells die by apoptosis. Mechanistically, LIN-39 might inhibit non-vulval fate (cell fusion in C. elegans, apoptosis in P. pacificus), promote vulval fate or do both. To study the mechanism of lin-39 function, we isolated P. pacificus cell death mutants and identified mutations in ced-3. Surprisingly, P. pacificus ced-3; lin-39 double mutants form a functional vulva in the absence of LIN-39 activity. Thus, in P. pacificus lin-39 specifies the vulva equivalence group by inhibiting programmed cell death. Furthermore, these data reveal an important difference in a later function of lin-39 between the two species. In C. elegans, LIN-39 specifies vulval cell fates in response to inductive RAS signaling, and in P. pacificus LIN-39 is not required for vulval induction. Thus, the comparative analysis indicates that lin-39 has distinct functions in both species although the gene is acting in a homologous developmental system.

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