Walter Jakob Gehring discovered the homeobox, a DNA segment found in a specific cluster of genes that determine the body plan of animals, plants, and fungi. Gehring identified the homeobox in 1983, with the help of colleagues while isolating the Antennapedia (Antp) gene in fruit flies (Drosophila) at the University of Basel in Basel, Switzerland. Hox genes, a family of genes that have the homeobox, determine the head-to-tail (anterior-posterior) body axis of both vertebrates and invertebrates. Gehring also identified the homeobox-containing Pax-6 gene as the master control gene in eye development of Drosophila, the same gene that, when mutated or absent in humans, leads to aniridia, or lack of the iris, in humans. Gehring's work with the homeobox suggested to biologists that widely different species share a similar and evolutionarily conserved genetic pathway that controls the development of overall body plans, from fruit flies to humans.

In 1995, researchers Ann Burke, Craig Nelson, Bruce Morgan, and Cliff Tabin in the US studied the genes that regulate the construction of vertebra in developing chick and mouse embryos, they showed similar patterns of gene regulation across both species, and they concluded that those patterns were inherited from an ancestor common to all vertebrate animals. The group analyzed the head-to-tail (anterior-posterior) axial development of vertebrates, as the anterior-posterior axis showed variation between species over the course of evolutionary time. Along those axes, they showed where Hox genes produced RNAs. Hox genes have the homeobox, a portion of DNA contributes to the generation of the body plans of animals, plants, and fungi. In the 1995 study, the researchers compared the expression patterns of Hox genes across the chick and mouse embryos, showing where the patterns were similar and where they differed. Based on those comparisons, they argued that Hox genes were present in the ancestors of tetrapods and fishes, and that Hox genes function in the segmentation of the anterior-posterior vertebrate axis in both chick and mouse embryos.

Homeobox genes are a cluster of regulatory genes that are spatially and temporally expressed during early embryological development. They are interesting from both a developmental and evolutionary perspective since their sequences are highly conserved and shared across an enormously wide array of living taxa.

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