In Drosophila and mouse, Polycomb group genes are involved in the maintenance of homeotic gene expression patterns throughout development. Here we report the skeletal phenotypes of compound mutants for two Polycomb group genes bmi1 and M33. We show that mice deficient for both bmi1 and M33 present stronger homeotic transformations of the axial skeleton as compared to each single Polycomb group mutant, indicating strong dosage interactions between those two genes. These skeletal transformations are accompanied with an enhanced shift of the anterior limit of expression of several Hox genes in the somitic mesoderm. Our results demonstrate that in mice the Polycomb group genes act in synergy to control the nested expression pattern of some Hox genes in somitic mesodermal tissues during development.
In Drosophila, the trithorax-group and the Polycomb-group genes are necessary to maintain the expression of the homeobox genes in the appropriate segments. Loss-of-function mutations in those groups of genes lead to misexpression of the homeotic genes resulting in segmental homeotic transformations. Recently, mouse homologues of the Polycomb-group genes were identified including M33, the murine counterpart of Polycomb. In this report, M33 was targeted in mice by homologous recombination in embryonic stem (ES) cells to assess its function during development. Homozygous M33 (−/−) mice show greatly retarded growth, homeotic transformations of the axial skeleton, sternal and limb malformations and a failure to expand in vitro of several cell types including lymphocytes and fibroblasts. In addition, M33 null mutant mice show an aggravation of the skeletal malformations when treated to RA at embryonic day 7.5, leading to the hypothesis that, during development, the M33 gene might play a role in defining access to retinoic acid response elements localised in the regulatory regions of several Hox genes.