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Mol Cell Biol. 2009 May;29(10):2570-81. doi: 10.1128/MCB.00166-09. Epub 2009 Mar 9.

Hypoxia-induced autophagy is mediated through hypoxia-inducible factor induction of BNIP3 and BNIP3L via their BH3 domains.

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  • 1Institute of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research, University of Nice, CNRS-UMR 6543, Lacassagne, 33 Avenue de Valombrose, 06189 Nice, France.


While hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) is a major actor in the cell survival response to hypoxia, HIF also is associated with cell death. Several studies implicate the HIF-induced putative BH3-only proapoptotic genes bnip3 and bnip3l in hypoxia-mediated cell death. We, like others, do not support this assertion. Here, we clearly demonstrate that the hypoxic microenvironment contributes to survival rather than cell death by inducing autophagy. The ablation of Beclin1, a major actor of autophagy, enhances cell death under hypoxic conditions. In addition, the ablation of BNIP3 and/or BNIP3L triggers cell death, and BNIP3 and BNIP3L are crucial for hypoxia-induced autophagy. First, while the small interfering RNA-mediated ablation of either BNIP3 or BNIP3L has little effect on autophagy, the combined silencing of these two HIF targets suppresses hypoxia-mediated autophagy. Second, the ectopic expression of both BNIP3 and BNIP3L in normoxia activates autophagy. Third, 20-mer BH3 peptides of BNIP3 or BNIP3L are sufficient in initiating autophagy in normoxia. Herein, we propose a model in which the atypical BH3 domains of hypoxia-induced BNIP3/BNIP3L have been designed to induce autophagy by disrupting the Bcl-2-Beclin1 complex without inducing cell death. Hypoxia-induced autophagy via BNIP3 and BNIP3L is clearly a survival mechanism that promotes tumor progression.

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