Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

    The Hox genetic network plays a key role in the anteroposterior patterning of the rhombencephalon at pre- and early-segmental stages of development of the neural tube. In the mouse, it controls development of the entire brainstem respiratory neuronal network, including the pons, the parafacial respiratory group (pFRG) and the pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC). Inactivation of Krox20/Egr2 eliminates the pFRG activity, thereby causing life-threatening neonatal apnoeas alternating with respiration at low frequency. Another respiratory abnormality, the complete absence of breathing, is induced when neuronal synchronization fails to develop in the preBötC. The present paper summarizes data on a third type of respiratory deficits induced by altering Hox function at pontine levels. Inactivation of Hoxa2, the most rostrally expressed Hox gene in the hindbrain, disturbs embryonic development of the pons and alters neonatal inspiratory shaping without affecting respiratory frequency and apnoeas. The same result is obtained by the Phox2a+/− mutation modifying the number of petrosal chemoafferent neurons, by eliminating acetylcholinesterase and by altering Hox-dependent development of the pons with retinoic acid administration at embryonic day 7.5. In addition, embryos treated with retinoic acid provide a mouse model for hyperpnoeic episodic breathing, widely reported in pre-term neonates, young girls with Rett's syndrome, patients with Joubert syndrome and adults with Cheyne–Stokes respiration. We conclude that specific respiratory deficits in vivo are assignable to anteroposterior segments of the brainstem, suggesting that the adult respiratory neuronal network is functionally organized according to the rhombomeric, Hox-dependent segmentation of the brainstem in embryos.