Insights into Hox protein function from a large scale combinatorial analysis of protein domains.
Protein function is encoded within protein sequence and protein domains. However, how protein domains cooperate within a protein to modulate overall activity and how this impacts functional diversification at the molecular and organism levels remains largely unaddressed. Focusing on three domains of the central class Drosophila Hox transcription factor AbdominalA (AbdA), we used combinatorial domain mutations and most known AbdA developmental functions as biological readouts to investigate how protein domains collectively shape protein activity. The results uncover redundancy, interactivity, and multifunctionality of protein domains as salient features underlying overall AbdA protein activity, providing means to apprehend functional diversity and accounting for the robustness of Hox-controlled developmental programs. Importantly, the results highlight context-dependency in protein domain usage and interaction, allowing major modifications in domains to be tolerated without general functional loss. The non-pleoitropic effect of domain mutation suggests that protein modification may contribute more broadly to molecular changes underlying morphological diversification during evolution, so far thought to rely largely on modification in gene cis-regulatory sequences.