We isolated two cDNA clones of rat Hex, a homeobox protein, studied its expression in rat liver and various cells, and characterized the protein. The levels of Hex mRNA were only slightly increased in liver of rats refed with a high-carbohydrate diet or after partial hepatectomy. Whereas the expression of Hex mRNA was detected in hepatocytes isolated from adult rat liver and also in highly differentiated hepatoma cells, no Hex mRNA was detected in poorly differentiated hepatoma cells. Hex mRNA was also detected in liver from embryo aged 15 days. Expression of Hex was increased in F9 cells during differentiation into visceral endoderm cells by treatment with retinoic acid. This stimulation occurred prior to an increase in the level of α-fetoprotein mRNA. When fusion-protein expression vectors of GAL4 DNA-binding domain and Hex were co-transfected with luciferase reporter plasmid, with or without five copies of the GAL4-binding site, into HepG2 cells, the luciferase activities were decreased in concentration- and GAL4-binding site-dependent manners. This repression did not require the presence of the homeodomain, which is located between the amino acid residues 137 and 196. Its repression domain was mapped between the residues 45 and 136 in the proline-rich N-terminal region. In addition, the homeodomain was responsible for DNA-binding of Hex. These results indicate that Hex functions as a transcriptional repressor and may be involved in the differentiation and/or maintenance of the differentiated state in hepatocytes.

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