A deletion analysis of the human insulin gene extending to 2 kb upstream of the transcription start site provided evidence of regulatory sequences located upstream of the insulin-linked polymorphic region (ILPR). Within this ILPR-distal region is a sequence (Ink, for insulin kilobase upstream) which contains three potential nuclear hormone-receptor half-sites, closely matching the consensus sequence AGGTCA. These sequences are arranged as a palindromic element with zero spacing over-lapping a direct repeat with 2 bp spacing. The Ink sequence was used in electrophoretic mobility-shift assays within nuclear extracts from COS-7 cells overexpressing the vitamin D, thyroid hormone or retinoic acid receptors, or from an insulin-expressing hamster cell line, HIT-T15. These studies suggest that the insulin-expressing cell line contains thyroid hormone and retinoic acid receptors at least, and that these receptors are able to recognize the Ink sequence. Three copies of the Ink sequence were placed upstream of the thymidine kinase promoter and firefly luciferase reporter gene. In COS-7 cells expressing the appropriate nuclear hormone receptor, this construct was responsive to both thyroid hormone (18-fold) and all-trans-retinoic acid (31-fold). In HIT-T15 cells the same construct responded to all-trans-retinoic acid, but not to thyroid hormone. Within the context of a 2 kb insulin gene fragment, the Ink sequence was shown to be activated by retinoic acid and by the retinoic acid receptor, but acted as a negative element in the presence of both retinoic acid and the retinoic acid receptor. Mutagenesis studies demonstrated that the palindromic sequence was important for the retinoic acid response, and for binding of complexes containing retinoic acid receptor. In human islets of Langerhans, retinoic acid was shown to stimulate insulin mRNA levels. These results demonstrate that a functional nuclear hormone-receptor-response element is located upstream of the human ILPR. As retinoic acid and thyroid hormone are frequently involved in developmental regulatory processes, it is possible that this element may be important in the process of islet cell differentiation.

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