In vertebrates, face and throat structures, such as jaw, hyoid and thyroid cartilages develop from a rostrocaudal metameric series of pharyngeal arches, colonized by cranial neural crest cells (NCCs). Colinear Hox gene expression patterns underlie arch specific morphologies, with the exception of the first (mandibular) arch, which is devoid of any Hox gene activity. We have previously shown that the first and second (hyoid) arches share a common, Hox-free, patterning program. However, whether or not more posterior pharyngeal arch neural crest derivatives are also patterned on the top of the same ground-state remained an unanswered question. Here, we show that the simultaneous inactivation of all Hoxa cluster genes in NCCs leads to multiple jaw and first arch-like structures, partially replacing second, third and fourth arch derivatives, suggesting that rostral and caudal arches share the same mandibular arch-like ground patterning program. The additional inactivation of the Hoxd cluster did not significantly enhance such a homeotic phenotype, thus indicating a preponderant role of Hoxa genes in patterning skeletogenic NCCs. Moreover, we found that Hoxa2 and Hoxa3 act synergistically to pattern third and fourth arch derivatives. These results provide insights into how facial and throat structures are assembled during development, and have implications for the evolution of the pharyngeal region of the vertebrate head.
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