The gap gene hunchback in Drosophila acts during syncytial blastoderm stage via a short-range gradient and concentration-dependent activation or repression of target genes. Orthologues of hunchback can be easily found in other insects, but it has been unclear how well its functions are conserved. The segmentation process in most insect embryos occurs under cellular conditions, which should not allow the formation of diffusion-controlled transcription factor gradients. We have studied here in detail the function of hunchback in the short germ embryo of Tribolium using parental RNAi and interaction with possible target genes. We find that hunchback is a major regulator of the trunk gap genes and Hox genes in Tribolium, but may only indirectly be required to regulate other segmentation genes. The core function of hunchback appears to be the setting of the Ultrabithorax expression border via a repression effect, and the activation of the Krüppel expression domain. These regulatory effects are likely to be direct and are conserved between Drosophila and Tribolium. We find no evidence for a classical gap phenotype in the form of loss of segments in the region of expression of hunchback. However, the phenotypic effects in Tribolium are highly comparable with those found for other short germ embryos, i.e. the core functions of hunchback in Tribolium appear to be the same in these other insects, although they are evolutionarily more distant to Tribolium, than Tribolium is to Drosophila. These results allow the disentanglement of the conserved role of hunchback in insects from the derived features that have been acquired in the lineage towards Drosophila. Given that the gap phenotype appears to occur only in long germ embryos and that the main role of hunchback appears to be the regionalization of the embryo, it may be appropriate to revive an alternative name for the class of gap genes, namely `cardinal genes'.
Gap Gene Hunchback