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Dev Biol. 2005 Jul 15;283(2):474-85.

Identification of a conserved 125 base-pair Hb9 enhancer that specifies gene expression to spinal motor neurons.

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  • 1Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, Cornell University Medical Center, New York, NY 10021, USA.


The homeobox gene Hb9 is expressed selectively by motor neurons (MNs) in the developing CNS. Previous studies have identified a 9-kb 5' fragment of the mouse Hb9 gene that is sufficient to direct gene expression to spinal MNs in vivo. Here, we sought to identify more discrete MN-specifying elements, using homology searches between genomic sequences of evolutionarily distant species. Based on homology screening of the mouse and human Hb9 promoters, we identified a 3.6-kb Hb9 enhancer that proved sufficient to drive MN-specific lacZ expression. We then compared mouse, human, and pufferfish (Fugu rubripes) genomic sequences, and identified a conserved 438-bp sequence, consisting of noncontiguous 313-bp and 125-bp fragments, residing within the 3.6-kb Hb9 enhancer. The zebrafish (Danio rerio) Hb9 genomic region was then found to have two identical copies of the 125-bp sequence, but no counterpart for the 313-bp sequence. Transgenic analysis showed that the 125-bp alone was both necessary and sufficient to direct spinal MN-specific lacZ expression, whereas the 313-bp sequence had no such enhancer activity. Moreover, the 125-bp Hb9 enhancer was found to harbor two Hox/Pbx consensus-binding sequences, mutations of which completely disrupted thoracolumbar Hb9 expression. These data suggest that Hox/Pbx plays a critical role in the segmental specification of spinal MNs. Together, these results indicate that the molecular pathways regulating Hb9 expression are evolutionarily conserved, and that MN-specific gene expression may be directed and achieved using a small 125-bp 5' enhancer.

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