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J Biol Chem. 2002 Feb 8;277(6):3878-85. Epub 2001 Nov 13.

Unsaturated fatty acid-mediated decreases in sterol regulatory element-mediated gene transcription are linked to cellular sphingolipid metabolism.

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  • 1Institute of Human Nutrition and the Department of Pediatrics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA.


A major physiological feedback mechanism of cholesterol in transcription of a number of lipid metabolism-related genes is mediated by sterol regulatory elements (SREs) and their binding proteins (SREBPs). Polyunsaturated free fatty acids alone, as well as synergistically with sterols, decrease SRE-mediated gene expression up to 80% in a dose-dependent manner by decreasing levels of the active transcription factor SREBP. We investigated potential mechanisms for this effect. We hypothesized that free fatty acids reduce SREBP-mediated gene transcription by increasing intracellular cholesterol content through the hydrolysis of cellular sphingomyelin, which has a high affinity for free cholesterol. We also questioned whether the lipid second messenger ceramide, a product of sphingomyelin hydrolysis, can decrease SRE-mediated gene transcription. First we investigated the effect of fatty acids on sphingomyelin hydrolysis. Incubation of [(3)H]choline-labeled cells with unsaturated (but not saturated) fatty acids induced hydrolysis of [(3)H]choline-labeled sphingomyelin. Also, incubation of cell extracts from fatty acid-treated cells with [(3)H]sphingomyelin increased generation of [(3)H]ceramide compared with control cells in vitro. We found that addition of ceramide analogs alone and additively with fatty acids decreased SRE expression and that ceramide analogs reduced levels of the transcriptionally active forms of SREBP-1 and SREBP-2. Increasing intracellular ceramide levels by exogenous sphingomyelinase or inhibition of ceramidase decreased SRE-mediated gene expression. None of the above conditions induced apoptosis. Incubation with U18666A, a compound that inhibits intracellular cholesterol movement, increased SRE-mediated gene transcription. C(2)-ceramide abrogated the effect of U18666A on SRE-mediated gene transcription, suggesting cholesterol-independent regulation of SREBP. We provide evidence that sphingomyelin hydrolysis and intermediates of sphingomyelin metabolism (in addition to cholesterol and fatty acids) contribute to regulation of SRE-mediated gene transcription.

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