Hox Transcription Factors: Their Involvement in Human Cancer Cells and In Vitro Functional Specificity
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Hox genes are regulatory genes encoding small proteins containing a highly conserved 61-amino acid motif, the homeodomain, that enables Hox proteins to bind to DNA at specifically recognised binding sites and transcriptionally activate their target genes. In mammalian species there are 39 Hox genes and they are structural and functional homologs of the Drosophila homeotic complex (Horn-C). During embryogenesis and early development the Hox genes are expressed in a spatiotemporal fashion, where they operate as master transcriptional regulators. Hox genes are further expressed in fully differentiated adult cells, potentially in a tissue-specific manner involving maintenance of the normal phenotype. In selected oncogenic transformations, dysregulated Hox gene expression has been observed, indicating an involvement of these transcriptional regulators in carcinogenesis and metastasis. Utilising quantitative real-time PCR assays, these studies investigated the expression patterns of 20 Hox genes and two wellcharacterised Hox cofactors (Pbx and Meis) in malignant and non-malignant human breast and skin cancer cells. Dysregulated Hox expression was observed for all malignancies tested, of which some misexpressed Hox genes seemed random, whereas other Hox transcripts showed altered levels potentially corresponding with the invasive capacity of the cells. Also, the Hox cofactors Pbx and Meis showed no marked changes in expression levels from the non-malignant to the malignant phenotypes, indicating that it is dysregulated Hox gene expression rather than dysregulated gene expression of Hox cofactors that potentially commit the cell to redifferentiate and undergo oncogenic transformation. Although the Hox proteins are known to be key transcriptional regulators of development, the mechanisms by which they gain their in vivo functional specificity is still largely unknown. They all show strikingly similar transcriptional specificity in vitro, yet show unique specificity in their in vivo environment. This paradox has been the subject of intense scrutiny, however very few direct Hox target genes have been identified, making it a difficult task to decipher the exact manner in which Hox proteins exert their functional potential. Therefore, the studies presented herein were aimed at identifying further Hox target genes in the human system. Utilising differential display approaches, several potential downstream target genes were isolated. Substantiated with real-time PCR assays, one of these potential targets was selected as a likely direct Hox gene target, and as such subjected to further studies. By the combination of bioinformatic analyses, transfection protocols and luciferase assays, a gene encoding the SR-related protein SRrpl3O was shown to be trans-activated in vitro by HOXD4 via a putative Hox binding element within its promoter region. This is the first reported link between Hox transcription factors and the SR and SR-related family of pre-mRNA splicing proteins, offering a new and exciting insight into the complex nature of Hox functional specificity. Finally, this thesis also puts forward new ideas regarding how the Hox proteins gain their transcriptional and functional specificity. Utilising bioinformatic tools in conjunction with performing an extensive review of the disparate catalogue of Hox-related research reports, work herein offers the first comprehensive analysis of the mammalian Hox gene targets in relation to their promoter structures, as well as with respect to the expanded Hox DNA-binding elements. This work reports that identified Hox targets generally contain TATA-less core promoters, many of which have several GC-box elements. The Hox binding elements show no apparent preference regarding their location relative to the transcription start site (TSS), as they are found both upstream and downstream of the TSS, as well as being located close to proximal core promoter elements for some genes and at more distant positions in other gene promoters. Finally, the core Hox binding element TAAT/ATTA contains only part of the necessary recognition sequence involved in Hox-DNA binding, and the notion that flanking base pairs dictate trans-regulatory potential is further explored with the hypothesis that the immediate 3' base pair dictates an activator/repressor-switch of the Hox trans-regulatory effect.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences
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