Expression of Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 in the pectoral fin of a basal ray-finned fish, Polyodon spathula: implications for the origin of tetrapod limbs


*Author for correspondence (email:


Summary Paleontological and anatomical evidence suggests that the autopodium (hand or foot) is a novel feature that distinguishes limbs from fins, while the upper and lower limb (stylopod and zeugopod) are homologous to parts of the sarcopterygian paired fins. In tetrapod limb development Hoxa-11 plays a key role in differentiating the lower limb and Hoxa-13 plays a key role in differentiating the autopodium. It is thus important to determine the ancestral functions of these genes in order to understand the developmental genetic changes that led to the origin of the tetrapod autopodium. In particular it is important to understand which features of gene expression are derived in tetrapods and which are ancestral in bony fishes. To address these questions we cloned and sequenced the Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 genes from the North American paddlefish, Polyodon spathula, a basal ray-finned fish that has a pectoral fin morphology resembling that of primitive bony fishes ancestral to the tetrapod lineage. Sequence analysis of these genes shows that they are not orthologous to the duplicated zebrafish and fugu genes. This implies that the paddlefish has not duplicated its HoxA cluster, unlike zebrafish and fugu. The expression of Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 in the pectoral fins shows two main phases: an early phase in which Hoxa-11 is expressed proximally and Hoxa-13 is expressed distally, and a later phase in which Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 broadly overlap in the distal mesenchyme of the fin bud but are absent in the proximal fin bud. Hence the distal polarity of Hoxa-13 expression seen in tetrapods is likely to be an ancestral feature of paired appendage development. The main difference in HoxA gene expression between fin and limb development is that in tetrapods (with the exception of newts) Hoxa-11 expression is suppressed by Hoxa-13 in the distal limb bud mesenchyme. There is, however, a short period of limb bud development where Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 overlap similarly to the late expression seen in zebrafish and paddlefish. We conclude that the early expression pattern in tetrapods is similar to that seen in late fin development and that the local exclusion by Hoxa-13 of Hoxa-11 from the distal limb bud is a derived feature of limb developmental regulation.