Background: In the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, segment identity is specified by the homoeotic selector genes of the bithorax and Antennapedia complexes. The functions of these genes in the segmental specification of the Drosophila ectoderm have been well studied, but their roles in muscle development have been relatively poorly investigated. Recent experiments have strongly suggested that homeotic selector genes are directly involved in one aspect of mesodermal patterning during Drosophila embryogenesis. But muscle development is a complex process, requiring for its completion the correct positioning of the epidermis, the nervous system and the developing muscles in a segment-specific manner. Many aspects of homeotic selector gene function in this process remain to be understood.
Results: In flies that are homozygous for three mutant alleles (anterobithorax, bithorax3, postbithorax) of the Ultrabithorax gene, the third thoracic segment (T3) is transformed towards the second (T2). The adults have two pairs of wings, but the homeotically transformed T3 (HT3) has only rudimentary indirect flight muscles. We used the 'four-winged' fly to study the role of homeotic selector genes in the development of the indirect flight muscles, which we classify into four 'events'. First, the determination of the segment-specific pattern of myoblasts in the larval thorax; second, the specific pattern of migration of myoblasts during metamorphosis; third, the fusion of myoblasts to form adult indirect flight muscles and fourth, the development of the branching pattern of adult motor innervation. Our study shows that the segmental identity of the epidermis determines the segment-specific pattern and number of myoblasts on the larval discs, and the pattern of their migration during metamorphosis. The segmental identity of the mesoderm, however, is crucial for the fusion of myoblasts to form indirect flight muscles, and also influences the branching pattern of innervation of indirect flight muscles.
Conclusions: Segmental information expressed in the ectoderm, and the autonomous function of homeotic selector genes in the mesoderm, are both required for the complete development of indirect flight muscles.