The Drosophila haltere is a much reduced and specialised hind wing, which functions as a balance organ. Ultrabithorax (Ubx) is the sole Hox gene responsible for the differential development of the fore-wing and haltere in Drosophila. Previous work on the downstream effects of Ubx has focused on the control of pattern formation. Here we provide the first detailed description of cell differentiation in the haltere epidermis, and of the developmental processes that distinguish wing and haltere cells. By the end of pupal development, haltere cells are 8-fold smaller in apical surface area than wing cells; they differ in cell outline, and in the size and number of cuticular hairs secreted by each cell. Wing cells secrete only a thin cuticle, and undergo apoptosis within 2 hours of eclosion. Haltere cells continue to secrete cuticle after eclosion. Differences in the shape of wing and haltere cells reflect differences in the architecture of the actin cytoskeleton that become apparent between 24 and 48 hours after puparium formation. We show that Ubx protein is not needed later than 6 hours after puparium formation to specify these differences, though it is required at later stages for the correct development of campaniform sensilla on the haltere. We conclude that, during normal development, Ubx protein expressed before pupation controls a cascade of downstream effects that control changes in cell morphology 24–48 hours later. Ectopic expression of Ubx in the pupal wing, up to 30 hours after puparium formation, can still elicit many aspects of haltere cell morphology. The response of wing cells to Ubx at this time is sensitive to both the duration and level of Ubx exposure.

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