Hox networks and the origins of motor neuron diversity

Curr Top Dev Biol. 2009;88:169-200. doi: 10.1016/S0070-2153(09)88006-X.


Motor behaviors are the primary means by which animals interact with their environment, forming the final output of most central nervous system (CNS) activity. The neural circuits that govern basic locomotor functions appear to be genetically hard wired and are comprised of discrete groups of neurons residing within the spinal cord. These local microcircuits coordinate simple reflexive behaviors in response to sensory stimuli and underlie the generation of rhythmic patterns of neural activity necessary for walking. In recent years there have been significant advances in understanding the genetic and molecular programs that determine the specificity of neural connections within the spinal cord that are critical for the emergence of coordinate motor behaviors. The assembly of circuits within the spinal cord requires the generation of diverse cell types to accommodate the intricate sets of interconnections between motor neurons, sensory neurons, interneurons, and muscle. The first and most critical aspect of this process is that motor neurons select their appropriate muscle targets in the periphery with fidelity and precision. All of the subsequent steps in motor neuron connectivity, such as their descending inputs from higher brain centers, their circuits with sensory neurons and interneurons are constrained by the early connections formed between motor neurons and their muscle targets. The actions of a single family of transcription factors, encoded by the chromosomally clustered Hox genes, appear to have a central role in defining the specificity of motor neuron-muscle connectivity. The emerging logic of Hox protein function in motor neuron specification may provide more general insights into the programs that determine synaptic specificity in other CNS regions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Hindlimb / embryology
  • Hindlimb / growth & development
  • Hindlimb / metabolism
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Motor Activity / genetics*
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Motor Neurons / cytology
  • Motor Neurons / metabolism*
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / physiology


  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Transcription Factors