Background: Dramatic changes in body size and pattern occurred during the radiation of many taxa in the Cambrian, and these changes are best documented for the arthropods. The sudden appearance of such diverse body plans raises the fundamental question of when the genes and the developmental control systems that regulate these designs evolved. As Hox genes regulate arthropod body patterns, the evolution of these genes may have played a role in the origin and diversification of the arthropod body plan from a homonomous ancestor. To trace the origin of arthropod Hox genes, we examined their distribution in a myriapod and in the Onychophora, a sister group to the arthropods.
Results: Despite the limited segmental diversity within myriapods and Onychophora, all insect Hox genes are present in both taxa, including the trunk Hox genes Ultrabithorax and abdominal-A as well as an ortholog of the fushi tarazu gene. Comparative analysis of Hox gene deployment revealed that the anterior boundary of expression of trunk Hox genes has shifted dramatically along the anteroposterior axis between Onychophora and different arthropod classes. Furthermore, we found that repression of expression of the Hox target gene Distal-less is unique to the insect lineage.
Conclusions: A complete arthropod Hox gene family existed in the ancestor of the onychophoran/arthropod clade. No new Hox genes were therefore required to catalyze the arthropod radiation; instead, arthropod body-plan diversity arose through changes in the regulation of Hox genes and their downstream targets.