Bile acid biosynthesis occurs primarily through a pathway initiated by the 7α-hydroxylation of cholesterol, catalysed by cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase (encoded by CYP7A1). Insulin down-regulates CYP7A1 transcription. The aim of our study was to characterize the sequences of hamster CYP7A1 promoter, mediating the response to insulin. We therefore performed transient transfection assays with CYP7A1 promoter/luciferase chimaeras mutated at putative response elements and studied protein-DNA interactions by means of gel electrophoresis mobility-shift assay. Here we show that two sequences confer insulin responsiveness on hamster CYP7A1 promoter: a canonical insulin response sequence TGTTTTG overlapping a binding site for hepatocyte nuclear factor 3 (HNF-3) (at nt -235 to -224) and a binding site for HNF-4 at nt -203 to -191. In particular we show that the hamster CYP7A1 insulin response sequence is part of a complex unit involved in specific interactions with multiple transcription factors such as members of the HNF-3 family; this region does not bind very strongly to HNF-3 and as a consequence partly contributes to the transactivation of the gene. Another sequence located at nt -138 to -128 binds to HNF-3 and is involved in the tissue-specific regulation of hamster CYP7A1. The sequence at nt -203 to -191 is not only essential for insulin effect but also has a major role in the liver-specific expression of CYP7A1; it is the target of HNF-4. Therefore the binding sites for liver-enriched factors, present in the hamster CYP7A1 proximal promoter in close vicinity and conserved between species, constitute a regulatory unit important for basal hepatic expression and tissue restriction of the action of hormones such as insulin.

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