Hox genes in species across the metazoa encode transcription factors (TFs) containing highly-conserved homeodomains that bind target DNA sequences to regulate batteries of developmental target genes. DNA-bound Hox proteins, together with other TF partners, induce an appropriate transcriptional response by RNA Polymerase II (PolII) and its associated general transcription factors. How the evolutionarily conserved Hox TFs interface with this general machinery to generate finely regulated transcriptional responses remains obscure. One major component of the PolII machinery, the Mediator (MED) transcription complex, is composed of roughly 30 protein subunits organized in modules that bridge the PolII enzyme to DNA-bound TFs. Here, we investigate the physical and functional interplay between Drosophila melanogaster Hox developmental TFs and MED complex proteins. We find that the Med19 subunit directly binds Hox homeodomains, in vitro and in vivo. Loss-of-function Med19 mutations act as dose-sensitive genetic modifiers that synergistically modulate Hox-directed developmental outcomes. Using clonal analysis, we identify a role for Med19 in Hox-dependent target gene activation. We identify a conserved, animal-specific motif that is required for Med19 homeodomain binding, and for activation of a specific Ultrabithorax target. These results provide the first direct molecular link between Hox homeodomain proteins and the general PolII machinery. They support a role for Med19 as a PolII holoenzyme-embedded “co-factor” that acts together with Hox proteins through their homeodomains in regulated developmental transcription.
Mutations of Hox developmental genes in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster may provoke spectacular changes in form: transformations of one body part into another, or loss of organs. This attribute identifies them as important developmental genes. Insect and vertebrate Hox proteins contain highly related homeodomain motifs used to bind to regulatory DNA and influence expression of developmental target genes. This occurs at the level of transcription of target gene DNA to messenger RNA by RNA polymerase II and its associated protein machinery (>50 proteins). How Hox homeodomain proteins induce fine-tuned transcription remains an open question. We provide an initial response, finding that Hox proteins also use their homeodomains to bind one machinery protein, Mediator complex subunit 19 (Med19) through a Med19 sequence that is highly conserved in animal phyla. Med19 mutants isolated in this work (the first animal mutants) show that Med19 assists Hox protein functions. Further, they indicate that homeodomain binding to the Med19 motif is required for normal expression of a Hox target gene. Our work provides new clues for understanding how the specific transcriptional inputs of the highly conserved Hox class of transcription factors are integrated at the level of the whole transcription machinery.