The vitamin A (retinol) metabolite, all-trans retinoic acid (RA), is a signaling molecule that plays key roles in the development of the body plan and induces the differentiation of many types of cells. In this review the physiological and pathophysiological roles of retinoids (retinol and related metabolites) in mature animals are discussed. Both in the developing embryo and in the adult, RA signaling via combinatorial Hox gene expression is important for cell positional memory. The genes that require RA for the maturation/differentiation of T cells are only beginning to be cataloged, but it is clear that retinoids play a major role in expression of key genes in the immune system. An exciting, recent publication in regeneration research shows that ALDH1a2 (RALDH2), which is the rate-limiting enzyme in the production of RA from retinaldehyde, is highly induced shortly after amputation in the regenerating heart, adult fin, and larval fin in zebrafish. Thus, local generation of RA presumably plays a key role in fin formation during both embryogenesis and in fin regeneration. HIV transgenic mice and human patients with HIV-associated kidney disease exhibit a profound reduction in the level of RARβ protein in the glomeruli, and HIV transgenic mice show reduced retinol dehydrogenase levels, concomitant with a greater than 3-fold reduction in endogenous RA levels in the glomeruli. Levels of endogenous retinoids (those synthesized from retinol within cells) are altered in many different diseases in the lung, kidney, and central nervous system, contributing to pathophysiology. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Retinoid and Lipid Metabolism.
© 2011 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.