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FASEB J. 1996 Dec;10(14):1598-606.

Osmotic regulation of gene expression.

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  • 1Laboratory of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-1598, USA.


Cells react to increased osmolality with numerous changes in gene expression. The specific genes affected differ between species, but the known osmoprotective effects of the gene products are remarkably similar, particularly with regard to cellular accumulation of compatible organic osmolytes. Here we concentrate on the molecular basis for osmotic regulation of gene expression, emphasizing certain genes expressed in bacteria, yeast, and the mammalian renal medulla because their expression is best understood. Thus, we emphasize 1) bacterial and yeast two-component histidine kinase systems, each consisting of a membrane osmolality sensor and a separate cytoplasmic response regulator that, when phosphorylated, alters transcription, 2) volume regulatory increases in cellular K+ salts that can prompt increased gene transcription in bacteria through direct effects on DNA and that in mammalian renal cells increase transcription, seemingly via trans-activating proteins, 3) a yeast kinase cascade that transmits an osmotic signal to the gene regulating the level of glycerol, and 4) in mammalian cells, several homologous cascades that are activated by hypertonicity, but whose osmoregulatory targets are not yet known.

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