Hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) is a transcription factor that acts in low-oxygen conditions. The cellular response to HIF activation is transcriptional upregulation of a large group of genes. Some target genes promote anaerobic metabolism to reduce oxygen consumption, while others "alleviate" hypoxia by acting non-cell-autonomously to extend and modify the surrounding vasculature. Although hypoxia is often thought of as being a pathological phenomenon, the mammalian embryo in fact develops in a low-oxygen environment, and in this context HIF has additional responsibilities. This review describes how low oxygen and HIF affect gene expression, cell behavior, and ultimately morphogenesis of the embryo and placenta.
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