Members of the orthodenticle gene family are essential for embryonic brain development in animals as diverse as insects and mammals. In Drosophila, mutational inactivation of the orthodenticle gene results in deletions in anterior parts of the embryonic brain and in defects in the ventral nerve cord. In the mouse, targeted elimination of the homologous Otx2 or Otx1 genes causes defects in forebrain and/or midbrain development. To determine the morphogenetic properties and the extent of evolutionary conservation of the orthodenticle gene family in embryonic brain development, genetic rescue experiments were carried out in Drosophila. Ubiquitous overexpression of the orthodenticle gene rescues both the brain defects and the ventral nerve cord defects in orthodenticle mutant embryos; morphology and nervous system-specific gene expression are restored. Two different time windows exist for the rescue of the brain versus the ventral nerve cord. Ubiquitous overexpression of the human OTX1 or OTX2 genes also rescues the brain and ventral nerve cord phenotypes in orthodenticle mutant embryos; in the brain, the efficiency of morphological rescue is lower than that obtained with overexpression of orthodenticle. Overexpression of either orthodenticle or the human OTX gene homologs in the wild-type embryo results in ectopic neural structures. The rescue of highly complex brain structures in Drosophila by either fly or human orthodenticle gene homologs indicates that these genes are interchangeable between vertebrates and invertebrates and provides further evidence for an evolutionarily conserved role of the orthodenticle gene family in brain development.

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