The neuroblast timer genes hunchback, Krüppel, nubbin, and castor are expressed in temporal sequence in neural stem cells, and in corresponding spatial sequence along the Drosophila blastoderm. As canonical gap genes, hunchback and Krüppel play a crucial role in insect segmentation, but the roles of nubbin and castor in this process remain ambiguous.

We have investigated the expression and functions of nubbin and castor during segmentation in the beetle Tribolium. We show that Tc-hunchback, Tc-Krüppel, Tc-nubbin and Tc-castor are expressed sequentially in the segment addition zone, and that Tc-nubbin regulates segment identity redundantly with two previously described gap/gap-like genes, Tc-giant and Tc-knirps. Simultaneous knockdown of Tc-nubbin, Tc-giant and Tc-knirps results in the formation of ectopic legs on abdominal segments. This homeotic transformation is caused by loss of abdominal Hox gene expression, likely due to expanded Tc-Krüppel expression.

Our findings support the theory that the neuroblast timer series was co-opted for use in insect segment patterning, and contribute to our growing understanding of the evolution and function of the gap gene network outside of Drosophila.

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