The evolution of Msx gene function: Expression and regulation of a sea urchin Msx class homeobox gene

Sonia L. Dobias, Liang Ma, Hailin Wu, Jeffrey R. Bell, Rob Maxson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Msx- class homeobox genes, characterized by a distinct and highly conserved homeodomain, have been identified in a wide variety of metazoans from vertebrates to coelenterates. Although there is evidence that they participate in inductive tissue interactions that underlie vertebrate organogenesis, including those that pattern the neural crest, there is little information about their function in simple deuterostomes. Both to learn more about the ancient function of Msx genes, and to shed light on the evolution of developmental mechanisms within the lineage that gave rise to vertebrates, we have isolated and characterized Msx genes from ascidians and echinoderms. Here we describe the sequence and expression of a sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) Msx gene whose homeodomain is very similar to that of vertebrate Msx2. This gene, designated SpMsx, is first expressed in blastula stage embryos, apparently in a non-localized manner. Subsequently, during the early phases of gastrulation, SpMsx transcripts are expressed intensely in the invaginating archenteron ard secondary mesenchyme, and at reduced levels in the ectoderm. In the latter part of gastrulation, SpMsx transcripts are concentrated in the oral ectoderm and gut, and continue to be expressed at those sites through the remainder of embryonic development. That vertebrate Msx genes are regulated by inductive tissue interactions and growth factors suggested to us that the restriction of SpMsx gene expression to the oral ectoderm and derivatives of the vegetal plate might similarly be regulated by the series of signaling events that pattern these embryonic territories. As a first test of this hypothesis, we examined the influence of exogastrulation and cell-dissociation on SpMsx gene expression. In experimentally-induced exogastrulae, SpMsx transcripts were distributed normally in the oral ectoderm, evaginated gut, and secondary mesenchyme. However, when embryos were dissociated into their component cells, SpMsx transcripts failed to accumulate. These data show that the localization of SpMsx transcripts in gastrulae does not depend on interactions between germ layers, yet the activation and maintenance of SpMsx expression does require cell-cell or cell-matrix interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-48
Number of pages12
JournalMechanisms of Development
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 1997


  • Msx
  • gastrulation
  • homeobox
  • sea urchin
  • tissue interactions


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