The human HO-1 (haem oxygenase-1) gene encodes a microsomal enzyme responsible for the breakdown of haem, and is also cytoprotective in response to various cellular insults. HO-1 transcription is induced by a vast array of compounds including, but certainly not limited to, haem and heavy metals such as cadmium. In the present study, we show that upstream stimulatory factors, USF1 and USF2, ubiquitous proteins belonging to the basic helix–loop–helix-leucine zipper family of transcription factors, constitutively bind to the class B E-box located in the proximal promoter of the human HO-1 gene and are responsible for the enhancement of HO-1 gene transcription in human renal proximal tubular epithelial cells. Dimethylsulphate in vivo footprinting studies have identified three protected guanine residues in the E-box of the HO-1 proximal promoter. One of these guanine contact points is essential for USF binding, and when mutated mimics a deletion mutation of the entire E-box palindrome sequence encompassing all three guanine contact points. Binding of USF1 and USF2 to the HO-1 E-box was confirmed by chromatin immunoprecipitation and gel-shift assays. Furthermore, we show that overexpression of USF1 or USF2 enhances the basal expression of HO-1 and that expression of a USF dominant negative form reduces its expression. These results demonstrate for the first time that USF proteins bind to the human HO-1 promoter in vivo and are required for high-level expression of HO-1 by haem and cadmium in human renal epithelial cells.

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