Nuclear Receptors: Small Molecule Sensors that Coordinate Growth, Metabolism and Reproduction

Subcell Biochem. 2011;52:123-53. doi: 10.1007/978-90-481-9069-0_6.


One of the largest groups of metazoan transcription factors (TFs), the Nuclear Receptor superfamily, regulates genes required for virtually all aspects of development, reproduction and metabolism. Together, these master regulators can be thought of as a fundamental operating system for metazoan life. Their most distinguishing feature is a structurally conserved domain that acts as a switch, powered by the presence of small diffusible ligands. This ligand-responsive regulation has allowed the Nuclear Receptors to help their hosts adapt to a wide variety of physiological niches and roles, making them one of the most evolutionarily successful TF families. Originally discovered as receptors for steroid hormones, the Nuclear Receptor field has grown to encompass much more than traditional endocrinology. For example, recent work has highlighted the role of Nuclear Receptors as major regulators of metabolism and biological clocks. By monitoring endogenous metabolites and absorbed xenobiotics, these receptors also coordinate rapid, system-wide responses to changing metabolic and environmental states. While many new Nuclear Receptor ligands have been discovered in the past couple of decades, approximately half of the 48 human receptors are still orphans, with a significantly higher percentage of orphans in other organisms. The discovery of new ligands has led to the elucidation of new regulatory mechanisms, target genes, pathways and functions. This review will highlight both the common as well as newly emerging traits and functions that characterize this particularly unique and important TF family.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear*
  • Transcription Factors* / genetics


  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Transcription Factors