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SUMMARY In insects, a key step in the early patterning of the egg is to distinguish the primordium of the embryo proper from those regions that will form extra-embryonic membranes. In Drosophila, where these processes are well understood, the structure of the extra-embryonic membranes is highly derived. The distinct amnion and serosa typical of lower insects is replaced by a single, fused, and much reduced membrane, the amnioserosa, which never secretes an embryonic cuticle.

We have used the Zen gene as a marker to study the formation of the extra-embryonic membranes, and other aspects of early embryonic patterning, in the grasshopper Schistocerca gregaria (African Plague Locust). Zen genes are derived from Hox genes, but in Drosophila they appear to have lost any role in patterning the A/P axis of the embryo; instead, they are involved in D/V patterning and the specification of the extra-embryonic membranes.

We show that the Schistocerca zen gene is expressed during embryogenesis in three distinct phases. The first of these is during cleavage, when Sgzen is transiently expressed in all energids that reach the cell surface. The second phase of expression initiates in a ring of “necklace cells” that surround the forming embryo, and demarcate the boundary between the amnion and serosa. This leads to expression throughout the serosa. The final phase of expression is in the amnion, after this has separated from the serosa. This complex pattern implies that the role of Sgzen in Schistocerca is not limited solely to the specification of cell identity in the extra-embryonic membranes.

We also report that the Schistocerca zen gene is expressed maternally, unlike its Drosophila and Tribolium counterparts. A distinct maternal transcript, and maternal Zen protein, accumulate in the developing oocyte from early post-meiotic stages. They remain uniformly distributed in the oocyte cytoplasm until late vitellogenic stages, when the protein and RNA become somewhat concentrated at the egg cortex and in the posterior polar cap of the oocyte, probably by passive exclusion from the yolk. The cytoplasmic localization of Sgzen protein in the oocyte, and at some stages during embryogenesis, implies that nuclear exclusion of this transcription factor is specifically controlled.