The fibula, a zeugopod bone in the hindlimb, exhibits various morphologies in tetrapod species. The fibula in some species has a similar length with the other zeugopod element, the tibia, while other species have obvious differences in the sizes of the two elements. In the avian hindlimb, for example, the fibula is extremely short, thin, and truncated. Basic morphology of the fibula is established during development, and cartilage primordium of the bone emerges in a certain region defined by a distinct combination of expression of Hox genes (Hox code). In order to elucidate how the different morphologies are produced from a region that is defined as the fixed Hox code, we examined spatial and temporal patterns of Hoxd11/Hoxd12 expression in the developing limb bud, which defines the region from which the fibula emerges, in comparison with the sites of precartilaginous mesenchymal condensations representing regions for cartilage formation among chick, mouse, and gecko embryos. We found that in the chick hindlimb, expression of Hoxd11/Hoxd12 decreased and disappeared from the presumptive zeugopod region before cartilage formation. This heterochronically early decline of expression of Hox genes is strongly correlated with the peculiar trait of the fibula in the avian hindlimb, since in the other species examined, expression of those genes continued after the onset of cartilage formation. This is morphological phenotype-related because the early disappearance was not seen in the chick forelimb. Our results suggest that temporal change of the Hox code governs diversification in morphology of homologous structures among related species.
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