In vertebrates, the total number of vertebrae is precisely defined. Vertebrae derive from embryonic somites that are continuously produced posteriorly from the presomitic mesoderm (PSM) during body formation. We show that in the chicken embryo, activation of posterior Hox genes (paralogs 9–13) in the tail-bud correlates with the slowing down of axis elongation. Our data indicate that a subset of progressively more posterior Hox genes, which are collinearly activated in vertebral precursors, repress Wnt activity with increasing strength. This leads to a graded repression of the Brachyury/T transcription factor, reducing mesoderm ingression and slowing down the elongation process. Due to the continuation of somite formation, this mechanism leads to the progressive reduction of PSM size. This ultimately brings the retinoic acid (RA)-producing segmented region in close vicinity to the tail bud, potentially accounting for the termination of segmentation and axis elongation. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.04379.00
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