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FASEB J. 1996 Jul;10(9):969-78.

Retinoids and Hox genes.

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  • 1Division of Developmental Neurobiology, National Institute for Medical Research, London, United Kingdom.


The vertebrate embryonic body plan is constructed through the interaction of many developmentally regulated genes that supply cells with the essential positional and functional information they require to migrate to their appropriate destination and generate the proper structures. Some molecular cues involved in patterning the central nervous system, particularly in the hindbrain, are interpreted by the Hox homeobox genes. Retinoids can affect the expression of Hox genes in cells lines and embryonic tissues; the hindbrain and branchial region of the head are particularly sensitive to the teratogenic effects of retinoic acid. The presence of endogenous retinoic acid, together with the distribution of retinoid binding proteins and nuclear receptors in the developing embryo, strongly suggest that retinoic acid is a natural morphogen in vertebrate development. The molecular basis for the interaction between retinoic acid and the Hox genes has been aided in part by approaches using deletion analysis in transgenic mice carrying lacZ reporter constructs. Such studies have identified functional retinoic acid response elements within flanking sequences of some of the most 3' Hox genes, suggesting a direct interaction between the genes and retinoic acid. Furthermore, as demonstrated using transgenic mice carrying Hoxb-1/lacZ constructs, multiple retinoic acid response elements may cooperate with positive and negative regulatory enhancers to specify pattern formation in the vertebrate embryo. These types of studies strongly support the normal roles of retinoids in patterning vertebrate embryogenesis through the Hox genes.

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