In this issue of the JCI, Niedermaier and colleagues demonstrate that a chromosomal inversion in mice results in dysregulation of Sonic hedgehog (Shh), such that Shh is ectopically expressed in a skeletogenic domain typically occupied by Indian hedgehog (Ihh). This molecular reversal eliminates phalangeal joint spaces, and consequently, Short digits (Dsh) heterozygotes (Dsh/+) have brachydactyly (shortened digits). Ihh is normally downregulated in regions that will become the joint space, but in Dsh/+ mice, Shh bypasses this regulatory control and persists; accordingly, cells maintain their chondrogenic fate and the developed digits are shorter than normal. The significance of these data extends far beyond the field of skeletal biology: they hint at the very real possibility that the endogenous Shh regulatory region contains a repressor designed to segregate the activity of Shh from Ihh. The existence of such a repressor provides a window into the distant past, revealing that Shh and Ihh must once have shared responsibilities in establishing tissue boundaries and orchestrating vertebrate tissue morphogenesis.
Luis de la Fuente, Jill A. Helms