OCT4 was discovered more than two decades ago as a transcription factor specific to early embryonic development. Early studies with OCT4 were descriptive and looked at determining the functional roles of OCT4 in the embryo as well as in pluripotent cell lines derived from embryos. Later studies showed that OCT4 was one of the transcription factors in the four-factor cocktail required for reprogramming somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and that it is the only factor that cannot be substituted in this process by other members of the same protein family. In recent years, OCT4 has emerged as a master regulator of the induction and maintenance of cellular pluripotency, with crucial roles in the early stages of differentiation. Currently, mechanistic studies look at elucidating the molecular details of how OCT4 contributes to establishing selective gene expression programs that define different developmental stages of pluripotent cells. OCT4 belongs to the POU family of proteins, which have two conserved DNA-binding domains connected by a variable linker region. The functions of OCT4 depend on its ability to recognize and bind to DNA regulatory regions alone or in cooperation with other transcription factors and on its capacity to recruit other factors required to regulate the expression of specific sets of genes. Undoubtedly, future iPSC-based applications in regenerative medicine will benefit from understanding how OCT4 functions. Here we provide an integrated view of OCT4 research conducted to date by reviewing the different functional roles for OCT4 and discussing the current progress in understanding their underlying molecular mechanisms. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Chromatin and epigenetic regulation of animal development.
Keywords: Cellular pluripotency; Combinatorial control of transcription; Cooperative DNA binding; OCT4 (POU5F1); POU family; Pioneer transcription factor.