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Genes Dev. 1995 Apr 15;9(8):1009-19.

Tissue-specific regulation of the insulin gene by a novel basic helix-loop-helix transcription factor.

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  • 1Department of Cell Biology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


The insulin gene is one of the best paradigms of tissue-specific gene expression. It is developmentally regulated and is expressed exclusively in the pancreatic beta-cell. This restricted expression is directed by a tissue-specific enhancer, within the promoter, which contains an E-box sequence. The insulin E-box binds an islet-specific protein complex, termed 3a1. E-boxes bind proteins belonging to the basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) family of transcription factors. The bHLH proteins function as potent transcriptional activators of tissue-specific genes by forming heterodimers between ubiquitous and cell-restricted family members. In addition, the cell-restricted bHLH members play an important role in specifying cell fate. To isolate the tissue-specific bHLH factor controlling insulin gene expression and study its role in islet cell differentiation, a modified yeast two-hybrid system was utilized to clone a novel bHLH factor, BETA2 (beta-cell E-box trans-activator 2), from a hamster insulin tumor (HIT) cell cDNA library. Northern analysis demonstrates that high-level expression of the BETA2 gene is restricted to pancreatic alpha- and beta-cell lines. As expected of tissue-specific bHLH members, BETA2 binds to the insulin E-box sequence with high affinity as a heterodimer with the ubiquitous bHLH factor E47. More importantly, antibody supershift experiments clearly show that BETA2 is a component of the native insulin E-box-binding complex. Transient transfection assays demonstrate that the BETA2/E47 heterodimer synergistically interacts with a neighboring beta-cell-specific complex to activate an insulin enhancer. In contrast, other bHLH factors such as MyoD and E47, which can bind to the insulin E-box with high affinity, fail to do so. Thus, a unique, cooperative interaction is the basis by which the insulin E-box enhancer discriminates between various bHLH factors to achieve tissue-specific activation of the insulin gene.

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