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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Jan 18;97(2):704-9.

Functional evolution of the Ultrabithorax protein.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin, 1525 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706, USA.


The Hox genes have been implicated as central to the evolution of animal body plan diversity. Regulatory changes both in Hox expression domains and in Hox-regulated gene networks have arisen during the evolution of related taxa, but there is little knowledge of whether functional changes in Hox proteins have also contributed to morphological evolution. For example, the evolution of greater numbers of differentiated segments and body parts in insects, compared with the simpler body plans of arthropod ancestors, may have involved an increase in the spectrum of biochemical interactions of individual Hox proteins. Here, we compare the in vivo functions of orthologous Ultrabithorax (Ubx) proteins from the insect Drosophila melanogaster and from an onychophoran, a member of a sister phylum with a more primitive and homonomous body plan. These Ubx proteins, which have been diverging in sequence for over 540 million years, can generate many of the same gain-of-function tissue transformations and can activate and repress many of the same target genes when expressed during Drosophila development. However, the onychophora Ubx (OUbx) protein does not transform the segmental identity of the embryonic ectoderm or repress the Distal-less target gene. This functional divergence is due to sequence changes outside the conserved homeodomain region. The inability of OUbx to function like Drosophila Ubx (DUbx) in the embryonic ectoderm indicates that the Ubx protein may have acquired new cofactors or activity modifiers since the divergence of the onychophoran and insect lineages.

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