Excessive iodine induces thyroid dysfunction. However, the effect of excessive iodine exposure on maternal–fetal thyroid hormone metabolism and on the expression of genes involved in differentiation, growth and development is poorly understood. Since a thyroid hormone receptor response element was found in the Hoxc8 promoter region, Hoxc8 expression possibly regulated by excessive iodine exposure was firstly investigated. In the present study, Balb/C mice were given different doses of iodine in the form of potassium iodate (KIO3) at the levels of 0 (sterile water), 1·5, 3·0, 6·0, 12·0 and 24·0 μg/ml in drinking water for 4 months, then were mated. On 12·5 d postcoitum, placental type 2 and type 3 deiodinase activities and fetal Hoxc8 expression were determined. The results showed that excessive iodine exposure above 1·5 μg/ml resulted in an increase of total thyroxine and a decrease of total triiodothyronine in the serum of maternal mice, which was mainly associated with the inhibition of type 1 deiodinase activity in liver and kidney. Placental type 2 deiodinase activity decreased, showing an inverse relationship with maternal thyroxine level. Hoxc8 mRNA and protein expression at 12·5 d postcoitum embryos were down regulated. Because Hoxc8 plays an important role in normal skeletal development, this finding provides a possible explanation for the skeletal malformation induced by excessive iodine exposure and also provides a new clue to study the relationship between iodine or thyroid hormones and Hox gene expression pattern.