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Scientists engineer synthetic DNA to study architect genes: Building artificial Hox genes enables researchers to see how cells learn their location in the body

Researchers at New York University have created artificial Hox genes — which plan and direct where cells go to develop tissues or organs — using new synthetic DNA technology and genomic engineering in stem cells.

Their findings, published in Science, confirm how clusters of Hox genes help cells to learn and remember where they are in the body.

Hox genes as architects of the body

Nearly all animals — from humans to birds to fish — have an anterior-posterior axis, or a line that runs from head to tail. During development, Hox genes act as architects, determining the plan for where cells go along the axis, as well as what body parts they make up. Hox genes ensure that organs and tissues develop in the right place, forming the thorax or placing wings in the correct anatomical positions.

If Hox genes fail through misregulation or mutation, cells can get lost, playing a role in some cancers, birth defects, and miscarriages.

“I don’t think we can understand development or disease without understanding Hox genes,” said Esteban Mazzoni, associate professor of biology at NYU and the study’s co-senior author.

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