Hydra, a diblastic animal consisting of two cell layers, ectoderm and endoderm, is one of the most ancient animals displaying an anteroposterior axis with a head and a foot developing from an uncommitted gastric region. As such, hydra is an interesting model for studying the presence and function of homeobox genes in a phylogenetically old organism. By screening a Chlorohydra viridissima cDNA library with a 'guessmer' oligonucleotide, we have cloned several such cnidarian homeobox-containing genes (cnox genes). Two of these, cnox1 and cnox2, display labial and Deformed type homeodomains respectively and could represent two ancestral genes of the HOM/HOX complexes; cnox3 exhibits some similarity to the BarH1 and the distal-less type homeodomains and a fourth gene is highly related to the msh/Hox7 type of homeodomain. We used quantitative PCR to study levels of expression of these genes along the body axis and during head regeneration. In all cases, the expression in heads was stronger than that in the gastric region. cnox1 transcripts dramatically peaked within the first hours of head regeneration, whereas cnox2 and cnox3 reached their maximal levels 1 and 2 days after cutting respectively. This differential expression of homeobox genes at various stages of regeneration suggests that they play specific roles in regenerative processes.