The potential role of Hox genes during vertebrate limb development was brought into focus by gene expression analyses in mice (P Dolle, JC Izpisua-Belmonte, H Falkenstein, A Renucci, D Duboule, Nature 1989, 342:767-772), at a time when limb growth and patterning were thought to depend upon two distinct and rather independent systems of coordinates; one for the anterior-to-posterior axis and the other for the proximal-to-distal axis (see D Duboule, P Dolle, EMBO J 1989, 8:1497-1505). Over the past years, the function and regulation of these genes have been addressed using both gain-of-function and loss-of-function approaches in chick and mice. The use of multiple mutations either in cis-configuration in trans-configuration or in cis/trans configurations, has confirmed that Hox genes are essential for proper limb development, where they participate in both the growth and organization of the structures. Even though their molecular mechanisms of action remain somewhat elusive, the results of these extensive genetic analyses confirm that, during the development of the limbs, the various axes cannot be considered in isolation from each other and that a more holistic view of limb development should prevail over a simple cartesian, chess grid-like approach of these complex structures. With this in mind, the functional input of Hox genes during limb growth and development can now be re-assessed.
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