Hypoxia-inducible factors are heterodimeric DNA-binding complexes that control the hypoxia responses of several genes and regulate the adaptive responses to the lack of oxygen. The complex is composed of two b-HLH protein subunits, HIF-1beta (ARNT), that is constitutively expressed, and a HIF-alpha subunit, that is present only in hypoxic cells. HIF-alpha proteins are continuously synthesized, but are rapidly degraded by the ubiquitin-proteasome system under oxic conditions. Hypoxia, transition metals, iron chelators, and several antioxidants stabilize the HIF-alpha proteins, allowing the formation of the transcriptionally active HIF complex. However, the sequences and mechanisms involved in the regulated degradation of the alpha protein subunits are poorly understood. Analysis of the available cloned sequences of human and mouse members of the HIF-alpha family of proteins revealed an area of about 15 amino acids with strong sequence conservation between all the members. This area corresponds to the region encompassing amino acids 557-571 of the hHIF-1alpha subunit. Fragments of HIF-1alpha and HIF-3alpha proteins containing this conserved sequence were able to confer hypoxia regulation when expressed as fusion proteins in Hep-3B cells. Regulation was observed with all the known hypoxia "mimics," including the reducing thiol donor N-mercaptopropionylglycine (NMPG). Selective alanine substitutions of amino acids 561-568 stabilized the protein in normoxic conditions. Furthermore, transfection with an expression vector containing a fragment of hHIF-1alpha comprising amino acids 540-580 enhanced transactivation activity of the full-length hHIF-1alpha protein. These results suggest that the above-mentioned conserved sequences are likely involved in the hypoxic stabilization of HIF-alpha proteins. The mechanisms and the interacting ubiquitin-ligases involved in the selective degradation process remain unknown.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.