In his 1978 seminal paper, Ed Lewis described a series of mutations that affect the segmental identities of the segments forming the posterior two-thirds of the Drosophila body plan. In each class of mutations, particular segments developed like copies of a more-anterior segment. Genetic mapping of the different classes of mutations led to the discovery that their arrangement along the chromosome paralleled the body segments they affect along the anteroposterior axis of the fly. As all these mutations mapped to the same cytological location, he named this chromosomal locus after its founding mutation. Thus the first homeotic gene (Hox) cluster became known as the bithorax complex (BX-C). Even before the sequencing of the BX-C, the fact that these similar mutations grouped together in a cluster, lead Ed Lewis to propose that the homeotic genes arose through a gene duplication mechanism and that these clusters would be conserved through evolution. With the identification of the homeobox in the early 1980s, Lewis' first prediction was confirmed. The two cloned Drosophila homeotic genes, Antennapedia and Ultrabithorax, were indeed related genes. Using the homeobox as an entry point, homologous genes have since been cloned in many other species. Today, Hox clusters have been discovered in almost all metazoan phyla, confirming Lewis' second prediction. Remarkably, these homologous Hox genes are also arranged in clusters with their order within each cluster reflecting the anterior boundary of their domain of expression along the anterior-posterior axis of the animal. This correlation between the genomic organization and the activity along the anteroposterior body axis is known as the principle of "colinearity." The description of the BX-C inspired decades of developmental and evolutionary biology. And although this first Hox cluster led to the identification of many important features common to all Hox gene clusters, it now turns out that the fly Hox clusters are rather exceptional when compared with the Hox clusters of other animals. In this chapter, we will review the history and salient features of bithorax molecular genetics, in part, emphasizing its unique features relative to the other Hox clusters.
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