The neural circuits governing vital behaviors, such as respiration and locomotion, are comprised of discrete neuronal populations residing within the brainstem and spinal cord. Work over the past decade has provided a fairly comprehensive understanding of the developmental pathways that determine the identity of major neuronal classes within the neural tube. However, the steps through which neurons acquire the subtype diversities necessary for their incorporation into a particular circuit are still poorly defined. Studies on the specification of motor neurons indicate that the large family of Hox transcription factors has a key role in generating the subtypes required for selective muscle innervation. There is also emerging evidence that Hox genes function in multiple neuronal classes to shape synaptic specificity during development, suggesting a broader role in circuit assembly. This Review highlights the functions and mechanisms of Hox gene networks and their multifaceted roles during neuronal specification and connectivity.
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