Preprint Hypothesis Version 1 Preserved in Portico This version is not peer-reviewed

Why a Constant Number of Vertebrae? - Digital Control of Segmental Identity During Vertebrate Development

Version 1 : Received: 5 August 2019 / Approved: 7 August 2019 / Online: 7 August 2019 (03:51:41 CEST)

A peer-reviewed article of this Preprint also exists.


It is not understood how the numbers and identities of vertebrae are controlled during mammalian development. The remarkable robustness and conservation of segmental numbers may suggest a digital nature of the underlying process. Here I propose a mechanism that allows cells to obtain and store the segmental information in digital form, and to produce a pattern of chromatin accessibility that in turn regulates Hox gene expression specific to the metameric segment. The model requires that a regulatory element be present such that the number of occurrences of the motif between two consecutive Hox genes equals the number of segments under the control of the anterior gene. This is true for the recently discovered HRC3 motif, associated with histone modifications and developmental genes. The finding not only allows correctly predicting the numbers of segments using only sequence information, but also resolves the 40-year-old enigma of the function of temporal and spatial collinearity of Hox genes. The logic of the mechanism is illustrated in an animated video: I also discuss how different aspects of the proposed mechanism can be tested experimentally.

Supplementary and Associated Material Animated video illustrating the concept


Hox genes; collinearity; segmental identity; chromatin modifications; vertebral malformations; vertebrae; Hox synteny; somitogenesis; Notch pathway


Biology and Life Sciences, Cell and Developmental Biology

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