The mammalian basic helix-loop-helix/PAS family of transcriptional regulators

Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2004 Feb;36(2):189-204. doi: 10.1016/s1357-2725(03)00211-5.


Basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH)/PAS proteins are critical regulators of gene expression networks underlying many essential physiological and developmental processes. These include transcriptional responses to environmental pollutants and low oxygen tension, mediated by the aryl hydrocarbon (Dioxin) receptor and hypoxia inducible factors (HIF), respectively, and controlling aspects of neural development, mediated by the single minded (SIM) proteins. bHLH proteins must dimerise to form functional DNA binding complexes and bHLH/PAS proteins are distinguished from other members of the broader bHLH superfamily by the dimerisation specificity conferred by their PAS homology domains. bHLH/PAS proteins tend to be ubiquitous, latent signal-regulated transcription factors that often recognise variant forms of the classic E-box enhancer sequence bound by other bHLH proteins. Two closely related forms of each of the hypoxia inducible factors alpha and single minded proteins and the general partner protein, aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT), are present in many cell types. Despite high sequence conservation within their DNA binding and dimerisation domains, and having very similar DNA recognition specificities, the homologues are functionally non-redundant and biologically essential. While the mechanisms controlling partner choice and target gene activation that determine this functional specificity are poorly understood, interactions mediated by the PAS domains are essential. Information on structures and protein/protein interactions for members of the steroid hormone/nuclear receptor superfamily has contributed to our understanding of the way these receptors function and assisted the development of highly specific agonists and antagonists. Similarly, it is anticipated that developing a detailed mechanistic and structural understanding of bHLH/PAS proteins will ultimately facilitate drug design.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases / metabolism
  • Drug Design
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Helix-Loop-Helix Motifs*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Multienzyme Complexes / metabolism
  • Multigene Family
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Proteasome Endopeptidase Complex
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / chemistry
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction
  • Transcription, Genetic*
  • Transcriptional Activation


  • Multienzyme Complexes
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases
  • Proteasome Endopeptidase Complex