Variation and constraint in Hox gene evolution.
Despite enormous body plan variation, genes regulating embryonic development are highly conserved. Here, we probe the mechanisms that predispose ancient regulatory genes to reutilization and diversification rather than evolutionary loss. The Hox gene fushi tarazu (ftz) arose as a homeotic gene but functions as a pair-rule segmentation gene in Drosophila. ftz shows extensive variation in expression and protein coding regions but has managed to elude loss from arthropod genomes. We asked what properties prevent this loss by testing the importance of different protein motifs and partners in the developing CNS, where ftz expression is conserved. Drosophila Ftz proteins with mutated protein motifs were expressed under the control of a neurogenic-specific ftz cis-regulatory element (CRE) in a ftz mutant background rescued for segmentation defects. Ftz CNS function did not require the variable motifs that mediate differential cofactor interactions involved in homeosis or segmentation, which vary in arthropods. Rather, CNS function did require the shared DNA-binding homeodomain, which plays less of a role in Ftz segmentation activity. The Antennapedia homeodomain substituted for Ftz homeodomain function in the Drosophila CNS, but full-length Antennapedia did not rescue CNS defects. These results suggest that a core CNS function retains ftz in arthropod genomes. Acquisition of a neurogenic CRE led to ftz expression in unique CNS cells, differentiating its role from neighboring Hox genes, rendering it nonredundant. The inherent flexibility of modular CREs and protein domains allows for stepwise acquisition of new functions, explaining broad retention of regulatory genes during animal evolution.