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Essays Biochem. 2004;40:59-72.

DNA recognition by nuclear receptors.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Cell Biology, Faculty of Medicine, Campus GHB O/N, Herestraat 49, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.


The nuclear receptors constitute a large family of ligand-inducible transcription factors. The control of many genetic pathways requires the assembly of these nuclear receptors in defined transcription-activating complexes within control regions of ligand-responsive genes. An essential step is the interaction of the receptors with specific DNA sequences, called hormone-response elements (HREs). These response elements position the receptors, and the complexes recruited by them, close to the genes of which transcription is affected. HREs are bipartite elements that are composed of two hexameric core half-site motifs. The identity of the response elements resides in three features: the nucleotide sequence of the two core motif half-sites, the number of base pairs separating them and the relative orientation of the motifs. The DNA-binding domains of nuclear receptors consist of two zinc-nucleated modules and a C-terminal extension. Residues in the first module determine the specificity of the DNA recognition, while residues in the second module are involved in dimerization. Indeed, nuclear receptors bind to their HREs as either homodimers or heterodimers. Depending on the type of receptor, the C-terminal extension plays a role in sequence recognition, dimerization, or both. The DNA-binding domain is furthermore involved in several other functions including nuclear localization, and interaction with transcription factors and co-activators. It is also the target of post-translational modifications. The DNA-binding domain therefore plays a central role, not only in the correct binding of the receptors to the target genes, but also in the control of other steps of the action mechanism of nuclear receptors.

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