Hox genes encode transcription factors which are involved in the establishment of regional identities along the anteroposterior (AP) body axis. To elucidate the AP patterning of the digestive tract, we have systematically examined the expression patterns of Hox genes belonging to paralogue groups 6, 7, 8 and 9 by whole-mount in situ hybridization and by section in situ hybridization analyses.
The expression patterns of these genes showed co-linearity along the wall of the digestive tract, thereby yielding the Hox code of the gut. The expression boundaries of the Hox genes at later stages (12.5 d.p.c.) corresponded to the morphological boundaries of individual gut subdomains.
The visceral mesoderm-restricted expression suggested that the Hox code primarily functions in the mesenchymal specification which eventually leads to the regional differentiation of gut subdomains as the result of epithelial–mesenchymal interactions. Overlapping expression patterns were found among the paralogous Hox genes, indicating that the paralogues may have redundant functions in the specification of the gut.