The molecular biology and nomenclature of the activating transcription factor/cAMP responsive element binding family of transcription factors: activating transcription factor proteins and homeostasis

Gene. 2001 Jul 25;273(1):1-11. doi: 10.1016/s0378-1119(01)00551-0.


The mammalian ATF/CREB family of transcription factors represents a large group of basic region-leucine zipper (bZip) proteins which was originally defined in the late 1980s by their ability to bind to the consensus ATF/CRE site 'TGACGTCA'. Over the past decade, cDNA clones encoding identical or homologous proteins have been isolated by different laboratories and given different names. These proteins can be grouped into subgroups according to their amino acid similarity. In this review, we will briefly describe the classification of these proteins with a historical perspective of their nomenclature. We will then review three members of the ATF/CREB family of proteins: ATF3, ATF4 and ATF6. We will address four issues for each protein: (a) homologous proteins and alternative names, (b) dimer formation with other bZip proteins, (c) transcriptional activity, and (d) potential physiological functions. Although the name Activating Transcription Factor (ATF) implies that they are transcriptional activators, some of these proteins are transcriptional repressors. ATF3 homodimer is a transcriptional repressor and ATF4 has been reported to be either an activator or a repressor. We will review the reports on the transcriptional activities of ATF4, and propose potential explanations for the discrepancy. Although the physiological functions of these proteins are not well understood, some clues can be gained from studies with different approaches. When the data are available, we will address the following questions. (a) How is the expression (at the mRNA level or protein level) regulated? (b) How are the transcriptional activities regulated? (c) What are the interacting proteins (other than bZip partners)? (d) What are the consequences of ectopically expressing the gene (gain-of-function) or deleting the gene (loss-of-function)? Although answers to these questions are far from being complete, together they provide clues to the functions of these ATF proteins. Despite the diversity in the potential functions of these proteins, one common theme is their involvement in cellular responses to extracellular signals, indicating a role for these ATF proteins in homeostasis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Activating Transcription Factor 2
  • Activating Transcription Factor 3
  • Activating Transcription Factor 4
  • Activating Transcription Factor 6
  • Animals
  • Cyclic AMP Response Element-Binding Protein / physiology*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / physiology
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Leucine Zippers / physiology*
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Transcription Factors / physiology*


  • ATF4 protein, human
  • ATF6 protein, human
  • Activating Transcription Factor 2
  • Activating Transcription Factor 3
  • Activating Transcription Factor 6
  • Cyclic AMP Response Element-Binding Protein
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Transcription Factors
  • Activating Transcription Factor 4