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BACKGROUND: Homeobox genes encode a diverse set of transcription factors implicated in a vast range of biological processes including, but not limited to, embryonic cell fate specification and patterning. Although numerous studies report expression of particular sets of homeobox genes, a systematic analysis of the tissue specificity of homeobox genes is lacking. RESULTS: Here we analyse publicly-available transcriptome data from human and mouse developmental stages, and adult human tissues, to identify groups of homeobox genes with similar expression patterns. We calculate expression profiles for 242 human and 278 mouse homeobox loci across a combination of 59 human and 12 mouse adult tissues, early and late developmental stages. This revealed 20 human homeobox genes with widespread expression, primarily from the TALE, CERS and ZF classes. Most homeobox genes, however, have greater tissue-specificity, allowing us to compile homeobox gene expression lists for neural tissues, immune tissues, reproductive and developmental samples, and for numerous organ systems. In mouse development, we propose four distinct phases of homeobox gene expression: oocyte to zygote; 2-cell; 4-cell to blastocyst; early to mid post-implantation. The final phase change is marked by expression of ANTP class genes. We also use these data to compare expression specificity between evolutionarily-based gene classes, revealing that ANTP, PRD, LIM and POU homeobox gene classes have highest tissue specificity while HNF, TALE, CUT and CERS are most widely expressed. CONCLUSIONS: The homeobox genes comprise a large superclass and their expression patterns are correspondingly diverse, although in a broad sense related to an evolutionarily-based classification. The ubiquitous expression of some genes suggests roles in general cellular processes; in contrast, most human homeobox genes have greater tissue specificity and we compile useful homeobox datasets for particular tissues, organs and developmental stages. The identification of a set of eutherian-specific homeobox genes peaking from human 8-cell to morula stages suggests co-option of new genes to new developmental roles in evolution.


Journal article


BMC developmental biology

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