Animals respond to hypoxia by increasing synthesis of the glycoprotein hormone erythropoietin (Epo) which in turn stimulates the production of red blood cells. The gene encoding Epo has been recently cloned in teleost fishes such as the pufferfish Takifugu rubripes (fugu) and zebrafish (Danio rerio). It has been shown that the transcription levels of Epo in teleost fishes increase in response to anemia or hypoxia in a manner similar to its human ortholog. However, the cis-regulatory element(s) mediating the hypoxia response of Epo gene in fishes has not been identified. In the present study, using the human hepatoma cell line (Hep3B), we have identified and characterized a hypoxia response element (HRE) in the fugu Epo locus. The sequence of the fugu HRE (ACGTGCTG) is identical to that of the HRE in the human EPO locus. However, unlike the HRE in the mammalian Epo locus, which is located in the 3' region of the gene, the fugu HRE is located in the 5' flanking region and on the opposite strand of DNA. This HRE is conserved in other teleosts such as Tetraodon and zebrafish in a similar location. A 365-bp fragment containing the fugu HRE was able to drive GFP expression in the liver of transgenic zebrafish. However, we could not ascertain if the expression of transgene is induced by hypoxia in vivo due to the low and variable levels of GFP expression in transgenic zebrafish. Our investigations also revealed that the Epo locus has experienced extensive rearrangements during vertebrate evolution.
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