Background: Hox genes play a central role in axial patterning during animal development. They are clustered in the genome and specify cell fate in sequential domains along the anteroposterior (A-P) body axis in a conserved order that is co-linear with their relative genomic position. In the soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans, this striking rule of co-linearity is broken by the anterior Hox gene ceh-13, which is located between the two middle Hox paralogs, lin-39 and mab-5, within the loosely organized nematode Hox cluster. Despite its evolutionary and developmental significance, the functional consequence of this unusual genomic organization remains unresolved.
Results: In this study we have investigated the role of ceh-13 in different developmental processes, and found that its expression and function are not restricted to the anterior body part. We show that ceh-13 affects cell migration and fusion as well as tissue patterning in the middle and posterior body regions too. These data reveal novel roles for ceh-13 in developmental processes known to be under the control of middle Hox paralogs. Consistently, enhanced activity of lin-39 and mab-5 can suppress developmental arrest and morphologic malformation in ceh-13 deficient animals.
Conclusion: Our findings presented here show that, unlike other Hox genes in C. elegans which display region-specific accumulation and function along the A-P axis, the expression and functional domain of the anterior Hox paralog ceh-13 extends beyond the anterior region of the worm. Furthermore, ceh-13 and the middle Hox paralogs share several developmental functions. Together, these results suggest the emergence of the middle-group Hox genes from a ceh-13-like primordial Hox ancestor.